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KMU Magazin No. 10, October 2023 175 years of the Swiss Federal Constitution

In 2023, modern Switzerland celebrates its 175th birthday. The Federal Constitution forms the basic legal order of the Swiss Confederation: it regulates the relationship between the Confederation and the cantons, the structure and responsibilities of the federal authorities and the fundamental rights and duties of citizens.

A milestone in the Swiss legal system

On the final day of the Winter Conference 2023, the Swiss Trade Association welcomed Federal Councillor Karin Keller-Sutter, the new head of the Federal Department of Finance. The Federal Councillor chose the topic of "Fiscal responsibility and freedom" for her keynote speech. According to the Federal Councillor, businesses in particular often want less regulation and more freedom. "As a liberal, I say: you're right! Take a stand against excessive restrictions! But I also say: accept the responsibility that comes with freedom. Personal responsibility, but also responsibility towards society," she continued.

The tension between responsibility and freedom is not only an important consideration for the individual, but also for our society as a collective. For the management of large companies and SMEs, politicians, associations and clubs, this trade-off is of central importance. If we look at world history, these values and their protection are a relatively recent development - often linked to the introduction of fundamental documents, including the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence or the Swiss Constitution, in which the people codified their deepest needs and aspirations.

August 1 or September 12

If we were to ask Mrs. or Mr. Swiss when the Swiss Constitution was signed, the answers would be varied, sometimes even a little confusing. We often hear the answer "August 1, 1291" - the date Switzerland was founded with the signing of the Federal Charter, Switzerland's oldest constitutional document. In it, the central Swiss Cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden pledged mutual assistance against all those who inflicted violence or injustice on them. With a dose of history and a bit of myth at the same time, August 1st and the Federal Charter resonate in people's hearts and minds as the founding document of Switzerland. Almost eight million people can't be that wrong when they celebrate Switzerland's national holiday with flags, cervelats and their traditional breakfast on the local farms, can they?

Less well-known and perhaps less mythical is the constitution of September 12, 1848, which is regarded as the basis for the modern federal state that replaced the former confederation of cantons. This constitution was approved by the Swiss people in the summer of 1848, at that time only by men, in a referendum with 145,584 votes in favor (72.8 %) against 54,320 votes against (27.2 %) and with 13.5 out of 22 votes from the cantons. An interesting side note: the constitution was only adopted in the canton of Lucerne because those who did not vote were counted as yes votes.

The Constitution of 1848 was influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution and the struggle for civil rights as well as the Constitution of the United States (the bicameral parliament is modeled on the American House of Representatives and Senate). The constitution stipulated that the cantons were independent insofar as their sovereignty was not limited by the federal constitution. The powers of the Confederation were limited at that time and only included foreign policy, the coinage regime, the determination of weights and measures and the establishment and support of public works. No popular initiative was accepted as clearly as the August 1st Initiative. 83.8 percent voted yes in 1993. Since then, August 1sthas been a non-working federal holiday. It is unlikely that there will be a second national holiday on September 12th . Although the National Council adopted the September 12th motion in May 2023, the Federal Council opposes the proposal. Although it shares the opinion that the founding of the federal state with the first Federal Constitution was an important milestone, according to Justice Minister Elisabeth Baume-Schneider, the Federal Council nevertheless rejects an additional national holiday. Following the vote by the National Council, the motion by Heinz Siegenthaler (Mitte/BE) went to the responsible committee of the Council of States, which rejected it by ten to one. The reason given was: "The establishment of a second national holiday on September 12th would not only cause considerable economic costs, but is also unnecessary." The new public holiday was finally removed from the table on September 27, 2023 when the Council of States made the final decision in the 2023 fall session by rejecting the motion from the National Council.

Living constitutions

In order to understand the importance of the constitution, there is no need for an additional public holiday. Rather, we need to understand and recognize that the document is alive and must be continuously reviewed to ensure that it still reflects the true will of the people. Modern constitutions are "alive" - they are adapted, renewed and supplemented. A particular example of the vitality of the constitution can be found in the women's suffrage movement.

The French Revolution of 1789 is generally regarded as the beginning of the women's rights movement, as it was in Switzerland. The Federal Constitution of 1848 established legal equality: "All Swiss are equal before the law. There are no subject relations in Switzerland, no privileges of place, birth, family or person." Women were not mentioned, but were not excluded either. Furthermore, Art. 63 of the Constitution of 1848 stated that

"Every Swiss citizen who has reached the age of twenty and is not otherwise excluded from active citizenship under the legislation of the canton in which he or she resides shall be entitled to vote."

The right to vote for women was introduced in Switzerland at federal level with the referendum of February 7, 1971 by the male part of the population alone. Switzerland was thus one of the last European countries to grant its female population full civil rights. Women's suffrage formally came into effect in Switzerland on March 16, 1971.

The amended constitution of 1971 enshrined voting rights at federal level in Art. 74 of the Federal Constitution as follows: "In federal votes and elections, Swiss men and women have the same political rights and duties. All Swiss citizens who have reached the age of 20 and are not excluded from active citizenship under federal law shall be entitled to vote and stand in such votes and elections." Finally, the age was adjusted to 18 in 1999.

We see a similar development with the 19th Amendment (introduction of women's suffrage) to the US Constitution. One of the most important and successful women's movements in the world - the suffragettes in the USA - began (not coincidentally) in 1848. When America celebrated the 100th anniversary of the US Constitution in September 1887, there were only 15 amendments at the time. The 19th Amendment would take almost 30 years to come into force. The US women's suffrage movement lasted until 1920 with the long-awaited ratification of the 19th Amendment - where women finally gained the right to vote - 50 years before Switzerland.

One for all. All for one

With this leitmotif "One for all. All for one", the young, not yet consolidated federal state of Switzerland appealed to the national sense of community in the second half of the 19th century. The aim was to reassure each individual canton that it was in everyone's interest to surrender sovereignty to the federal state. However, this guiding principle had a much earlier beginning with the dying hero Winkelried from Nidwalden, who sacrificed his life for the Confederation. As he cleared the way for his comrades through the enemy lines, he spoke the words: "I will make a lane for you ... Take care of my wife and children." With the motto "One for all. All for one", Winkelried gave his life for the Confederacy. Since 1902, this motto has literally floated above the heads of our politicians in the dome of Switzerland’s Parliament Building as a reminder of their dedication to freedom and responsibility.

175 years - an incredible story

To celebrate the 175th anniversary of the modern constitution, festivities, readings, photo essays and open days are being organized throughout Switzerland, from Bern to Graubünden.

The International Bundesbrief Society, together with Kaufmann Rüedi Attorneys at Law, the University of Lucerne and the Obwalden Institute for Justice Research, is organizing an exhibition of the German version of the U.S. Articles of Confederation on Thursday, 16 November 2023. A copy of the original German-language version from 1778, which is archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, has been digitized and released especially for this year's national constitutional celebrations. The festive event on November 16, 2023 at the University of Lucerne will focus on celebrating the shared democratic and constitutional heritage of the United States and Switzerland. Further festivities are planned at the Federal Court of Lucerne on the evening of November 27th . Other anniversary activities will be continuously updated on the official website of the Parliament .

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