Session on “Power sharing arrangements: Lessons of Switzerland”

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‘Power sharing arrangements: the case of Iraq in Comparative Context’

American University conference, Friday 11 June, 2004, Washington DC
Session on “Power sharing arrangements: Lessons of Switzerland”

  • Dr. Fred Tanner, Deputy Director, The Geneva Centre for Security Policy

I would like to thank Jonathan Hepburn for his assistance.

In many discussions about the future shape of Iraq, a number of models have been put forward. In particular, a ‘federal’ structure has often been suggested and discussed as one means to enable different groups within Iraq to share power in a new political arrangement1. It is in this context that Switzerland has often been cited as an example of a consociational democracy, which may be a useful model for the emerging political framework in Iraq. The Swiss experience of federalism could show how fragmented minorities could be integrated through negotiation and participatory democratic power-sharing.
Any attempts to draw on the Swiss experience should take into account the fact that, while in Switzerland there is broad consensus on the general framework, nature and goals of political dialogue, in Iraq this may not necessarily be the case. Ultimately, it will be the process by which power-sharing is arrived at which will be important, and not so much the specific substance or structure of one arrangement or another. Again, as Lakdhar Brahimi noted in his address to the UN Security Council in April, “the solution to Iraq's problems will have to come from the Iraqis themselves”. No model imposed from outside – from Switzerland or elsewhere – will ultimately be seen as truly legitimate.

1. Can Switzerland serve as a relevant model?
The peaceful coexistence of different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups over the last 150 years suggest that valuable lessons could be drawn. However, it is also worth emphasizing some of the significant differences between Iraq and Switzerland.
The Swiss confederation is not based on a national legacy, like, for instance Germany (mono-cultural identity) or the US (civism without multiculturalism). In view of the absence of an ethnically homogenous state, Switzerland had to build its national identity with the help of institutions and the shared commitment to the same values.
Iraq has been under military occupation, with a recent past of “a very harsh and brutal regime, and severe, even crippling sanctions, not to mention two earlier devastating and costly wars”. 2 To this could be added the legacy of a regime which for decades repressed any genuine political dialogue, and, further back still, the difficulties faced by a newly-created state emerging from decolonisation.
Unlike in Switzerland, political violence in Iraq continues to determine or influence the nature of the political process and prevent genuine dialogue from emerging. Politically-motivated violence is unlikely to diminish in the near future, and could easily become worse.
Switzerland, in contrast, is a country that has had a relatively stable and peaceful history for some centuries. It not only is relatively wealthy, but this wealth is distributed in a broadly equitable way between ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional groups. There is not one single official national language, but four (German, French, Italian and Romansh). This societal multilingualism is compartmentalised into four linguistic regions with their inhabitants being mostly monolingual. Unlike in most other countries, in Switzerland, the languages are not tied to ethnic groups, but they are linked to territory, the size of which is defined by cantons or communes.
It is worth noting that the material differences between Iraq and Switzerland are, at this moment in time, considerable. Switzerland remains a prosperous, wealthy country with relatively high levels of investment in public services. Different ethnic groups share, on the whole, in this prosperity, in a largely egalitarian manner. In contrast, Iraq is suffering from high levels of unemployment3, widespread poverty, and the collapse of a significant range of basic services. This may affect some parts of the population more than others, and in itself represents a challenge to the establishment of a fair, equitable and smoothly functioning political system.
Switzerland has a shared history and identity dating back over some centuries. Its origins lie in an agreement between three cantons in 1291; since this date, other cantons “freely agreed to join each other, step by step, as independent entities”4. The old loosely connected federation of Swiss states (cantons) came to an end with the invasion of Switzerland by Napoleon’s forces in 1798. Napoleon succeeded in changing the ruling elite in some cantons or at least in curtailing their privileges. He did not succeed, however, in creating a unitary and centralised Helvetic republic.
Switzerland did overcome several religious and secessionist conflicts. Religious wars were fought between conservative catholic cantons and protestant liberal cantons. These wars did not lead to the fragmentation of the Confederation along religious lines, because of the fact that the religious groups did overlap the ethnic/cultural distribution of the country, i.e. there are both French and German speaking Catholic cantons. During the civil war of 1847, for instance, two partially French-speaking cantons (Valais and Fribourg) were among the secessionist group called the Sonderbund.
In contrast, Iraq’s legacy as a state is based on its short history in its current form since 1932. Prior to this date, the country was under British occupation and before that was a part of the Turkish Empire. Political tensions between different groups, some of which are linked to armed factions, now raises the spectre of civil war, unless these tensions can be translated into political dialogue through formal channels which are widely agreed upon and recognised as legitimate.
In Switzerland, most people have had a broadly similar and equal experience of political engagement. For example, French, German, Italian or Romansh speakers all exercise similar levels and kinds of control, rights and responsibilities. However, in Iraq, different groups have had very different levels and types of experience of engagement with the political process, both before and after the US-led occupation.5

2. Swiss power-sharing at a glance
“Switzerland is based on the peoples of the cantons as well as on a “Swiss nation” composed of different cultures and religions.”6 Thus, the constituent elements of the Swiss federal system are the cantons. The Swiss system is not strictly a ‘power-sharing’ arrangement so much as a confederation. It does not involve ‘devolving down’ power which is held at the national level, but rather involves pooling together power from the cantonal level to achieve common goals at the national level.7 At the same time, sovereignty is also vested in the people: this principle is given expression through the institution of direct democracy. This is an additional power-sharing and power-control instrument for minority groups to hedge against majority decisions within the government and the parliament on a federal and cantonal level.
a) Federalism: vertical and horizontal power-sharing
In Switzerland, power and responsibility is shared between three levels of government: the communal level, the cantonal level, and the federal (or national) level. The ‘vertical’ dimension relates to the balance between power-sharing and self-rule on different levels of government. The horizontal power-sharing of Swiss federal policy is based on institutionalised cultural differences.
The federal government is responsible for external affairs, defence, the postal service and social security. The cantons have their own constitution, parliament, government and courts, and are responsible for education, public transport and police. They also administer their own financial resources and taxation systems. The communes, the most local level of government, are responsible for culture, sport, fire services, and social centres. There is, therefore, a balance in the distribution of power and responsibilities between the different elements of the federal system.
b) Direct democracy
The institution of direct democracy gives Swiss society the ability to influence, curtail and even reverse domestic and external policies on federal, cantonal and communal levels. The holding of referenda gives the Swiss people direct control over the output of the parliamentary process. The initiatives, in turn, can propose new laws or challenge existing laws and institutions. In 1989, for instance, the Swiss citizens had to vote on an initiative to abolish the Swiss army. This initiative placed a great deal of pressure on the Swiss government to justify the continuous support of an army in light of the end of the Cold War.
c) Consensus democracy
The notion of consensus is intimately linked to two sets of values: tolerance and trust. The continued exercise of these moral values is a function of the political culture of a society. The worst enemies of consensus democracy are intolerance and ‘spoilers’. Spoilers are typified by a willingness to use violence, and a refusal to accept electoral outcomes. In a multicultural environment, consensus democracy is difficult to achieve. In the Swiss case, the Constitution requires tolerance and trust among the various ethnic groups by promulgating “diversity in unity”. There is a broad popular consensus relating to the structure and basis of government at communal, cantonal and national (federal) level. This consensus is set out formally in the Federal Constitution. This covers, amongst other things: fundamental rights, civil rights and social goals; the Confederation, cantons and municipalities; and the status, organisation, procedures and powers of the federal authorities.

3. What are the lessons to be learned from the Swiss experience?
a) Conflict solving during state formation period (1815-1848)
Although we should be wary of making over-simplified comparisons between federalism in Switzerland and the current situation in Iraq, there may nonetheless be some useful points of comparison, especially when the two countries are considered in a longer historical time-frame.
In particular, the situation of Switzerland between 1815, when the occupying French were defeated, and 1848, when the new Constitution was drafted, bears some striking similarities to the situation of Iraq today. During this period, the country was torn by conflict, including a very short but bloodless civil war. The difference was defined by ideology (conservative-liberal) and religion (catholic-protestant).
The conflict can be characterised as:
strife between radical, mainly urban Protestant forces and conservative, mainly Catholic and rural interests. Although there was a religious dimension to this conflict, it also followed the broader European division between liberals intent on advancing democracy and the sovereignty of the people, and conservatives determined to maintain the old order based on hierarchical social relations.”8
Arguably, there are parallels between the situation prevailing in Switzerland at the time, and some of the tensions between different groups in Iraq today. In Iraqi society, there are also marked differences between more conservative Islamist tendencies and secular or more liberal religious traditions. As was the case in Switzerland, there may be correlations between urban and rural areas and support for different political or religious perspectives. Political fissures between more moderate and more conservative ideologies may relate also to education and class, and, as in many countries of the Middle East, Iraqi women in particular have sought to ensure that their civil and political rights are respected. However, the Shia / Sunni distinction is largely unrelated to the division between more liberal and more conservative tendencies, and in this sense differs from the Protestant / Catholic divide in Switzerland in the nineteenth century.
How were these religious tensions resolved? Sadly enough, in the case of Switzerland, only a civil conflict and violent change eventually led to conditions in which a viable federal state could be established. The Catholic/conservative-Protestant/liberal dichotomy escalated under the spread of political liberalism and nationalism in Europe. The Catholics wanted to preserve the cantonal system of sovereignty, whereas the Protestants were aspiring to the creation of a nation-state. The withdrawal of the Catholic cantons from the confederative conference of delegates and their rapprochement with Catholic monarchies represented a casus belli for the Protestant cantons, which were economically and military superior. The liberal cantons prevailed with a Blitzkrieg that generated very few casualties. 9
The successful creation of a self-sustaining Swiss Federation was due to the following factors:

  • The rapid termination of the war prevented atrocities from being committed. The various cultural groups in Switzerland therefore do not harbour long-standing feelings of enmity against one another.

  • The protection of linguistic and religious minorities.

The new constitution that created the Swiss Federal State gave threatened Catholic and French speaking cantons the sense that their territorial sovereignty was protected. To avoid future secessionist movements, the Federal Constitution gave the cantons the largest possible autonomy and self-government, and also gave them instruments of checks and balances on central power. The constitution’s preamble also refers to this by providing the cantons equal standing with the people.10 Under the new constitution, cantons continued to have a co-decision making power with regard to constitutional change, as well as in the legislative process of the bicameral parliament.

  • The management and regulation of the relationship between the state and religion remained in the competence of the cantons. The federal constitution explicitly mandates the federal and cantonal governments within the framework of their powers, “to take measures to maintain public peace between the members of the various religious communities”.11

  • The introduction of direct democracy allowed ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities to participate and co-shape the federal decision-making process. Under the direct democracy rules of the federation, the cantons have also the right to challenge federal laws with referenda.12

Religious conflict did continue for some decades after 1848, and later revisions to the Constitution in 1874 did contain further modifications to the relationship between the federal government and the cantons, and included additional anti-clerical provisions. However, although “the Protestant/urban Catholic/rural cleavage was to remain a prominent part of Swiss political life for many decades – and indeed remains so to this day – it has never manifested itself in ways that threaten the viability of the system”.13

b) Power-sharing with help of the ‘magic formula’
In Switzerland, there are no political coalitions formed among ethnic blocs. The political system is based on an integrative formula, sometimes referred to as the “magic formula” that tries to include the entire political spectrum in the federal government. The Swiss government operates, or has until recently operated, on the basis of this long-standing unwritten magic formula for sharing and balancing roles and power between representatives from different cantons, and also between political parties on the left and the right.14 For example, if a representative from a French-speaking canton takes responsibility for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, another from a German-speaking canton may take responsibility for Defence. Similarly, if the Head of the Armed Forces comes from a German-speaking area, the Deputy is usually French speaking. Like other dimensions of the Swiss federal system noted above, this mechanism has historically been dynamic rather than static: the ‘magic formula’ was adapted by the end of the 1930s so as to assure equitable representation of the newly emergent Socialist Party.
This form of implicit consensus may prove a useful model for Iraqis from different political groups as they seek to establish new power-sharing arrangements in the government. In view of the establishment of a national “unity” transitional government from 1st July onwards, Brahimi has not yet been able to create a “magic formula” based on the composition of the country's "wide diversity".
c) Hedging against “winner takes all”
In 1848, the creation of the Swiss state was made on the ground of two principles: federalism and democracy. This has led to delicate balancing between the protection of minority rights and the need to ensure equitable representation. Democratic majoritarianism posits the “one person, one vote” idea, a scheme that can lead easily to permanent minority exclusion. Federalism, in contrast, attempts to ensure equal influence for minority groups irrespective of the size of their population. It denies ethnic majorities the right to claim to represent the (only) legitimate expression of the will of the people.15
After the civil war of 1847, the victorious majority had to ensure that the defeated minority would participate in the new federal state. They did this by providing guarantees of protection for the minority group. Accordingly, the votes of small catholic-conservative cantons were weighted more heavily than those of larger protestant-liberal cantons. In fact, the groups of small, catholic-conservative cantons, representing 9 percent of the entire Swiss population, managed to veto the democratic majorities on numerous occasions. The Swiss search for a just and viable power-sharing arrangement led to an inevitable trade off between democratic majoritarianism and territorial minority protection that had to be adjusted over time through negotiation, either implicit or explicit, between the different stakeholders of the Swiss state.

4. Conflict solving through secession and partition within the federal and cantonal framework.
a) Secession leading to creation of a new canton
One option to contain and absorb secessionist pressures within a Federal state is to create a new “sovereign” canton. This was the case with the Jura region. The Swiss constitution did not have any provisos on secession when the issue emerged in the 1960s. The Jura region, which is predominantly Catholic and French-speaking, was originally incorporated into the mainly Protestant and German-speaking canton of Berne at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. However, over time the German-speaking population became increasingly dominant, and, as a consequence, a number of separatist movements sprang up. In the 1960s, the Front de Libération Jurassien began to engage in sporadic acts of violence, whilst mainstream political parties worked to resolve the tensions through dialogue and negotiation. The secession within the Swiss federal system was successful because of the right of self-determination. The situation was defused through a cumulative series of ballots, in a process which has been described as an example of the use of “uniquely Swiss consensus-building devices”16:
“…It was agreed that any solution would have to involve not only the people of the Jura region but also the Berne canton and the whole of Switzerland. Accordingly, at the initiative of the Bernese government a series of what Linder calls ‘cascade votes’ were taken in every commune of the Jura. Where a majority emerged for the creation of a new canton, a fifth of the electorate could demand a second vote. Once the boundaries of the new cantons were set, a third vote was allowed for those communes lying at the border of the new canton. Eventually, the whole of the Berne electorate voted in favour of the cascade voting system, followed by a vote in all cantons. The vote was 1.3 million for and 28,000 against, with large ‘yes’ votes in all Swiss cantons.”
b) Conflict avoidance during religious turmoil: the partition of the Canton of Appenzell
One particularity of Switzerland’s political system is the existence of so-called half cantons. There are six half cantons which form three entities on a national level.17 Half cantons are, to a high degree, independent political entities but form a single unit on a national level. The division of former single cantons into two political entities happened because of religious or economic divergences. The partitions were not meant to end up as totally permanent separations, but were seen more as a temporary partition with the option for the half-cantons to reunite.
The partition of Appenzell was a typical “conflict prevention” measure, taken during the period of religious wars in Europe after the reformation in the 1530s. The partition into two political units allowed the inner part of Appenzell to remain Catholic, whereas the outer part decided publicly to embrace Protestantism. Politically, both parties still have their own structure, including executive, legislative as well as juridical functions. On the national level, however, both parties are represented as a half-canton, meaning that they each have one representative in the state council and half a vote in national votes.18

5. How to protect minorities within minority cantons?
It can be argued that the different cantons co-exist peacefully with one another because there is relatively little ethnic mix. On the other hand, mixed bilingual cantons do exist, and there is also one canton which is trilingual (Graubünden), although these mixed cantons are the exception rather than the rule. Kälin notes that “since the 19th century, the boundaries between the religions (Protestants and Catholics), the languages (German, French, Italian), and the socio-economic conditions (rural and urban areas) are no longer identical and they only rarely coincide with cantonal borders”. 19
The existence of linguistically mixed units does raise specific administrative challenges, which the cantonal authorities have to resolve.20 Kälin suggests that “because language, religions, and socio-economic conditions overlap, every Swiss is in some regards a majority and in other regards a minority. These “crosscutting cleavages” not only prevent the creation of conditions where a person is in a minority position in almost every regard but also make co-operation necessary because no group is strong enough to be in a majority position most of the time”. Arguably, Iraqi society is in this respect similar to Swiss society. However, at least at the moment, Iraqi society differs insofar as forms of cultural identity would appear to have, or are being given, greater political significance than is the case in Switzerland. In Iraq, there is no self-evident way to identify constituent administrative or political units, nor indeed constituent political groups.

The development of equitable power-sharing arrangements is a process which develops over time. It requires the trust and commitment of relevant parties, all of whom need to feel that their own specific concerns and needs are accounted for. In this sense, democracy cannot simply be ‘imposed’ on a country, however desirable this may be. Instead, it requires the patient negotiation of the demands, aspirations and concerns of different political actors and groups.
The Swiss federal system evolved slowly before reaching its current form, and is even today still being re-created in an ever-continuing process. New cantons are formed, others are split in half, and administrative boundaries are re-drawn and re-defined. In the past, this has frequently occurred in order to address religious or ethnic rivalries; the evolution of power-sharing arrangements can thus be seen as a continuous process of conflict resolution.
Conflict solving mechanisms have always been a high priority among cultural and religious communities in Switzerland. The Swiss state and the cantons are explicitly entitled to engage in multicultural conflict solving. The Federal constitution stipulates that “the Federation and the Cantons may, within the framework of their powers, take measures to maintain public peace between the members of the various religious communities”.21
The problem with identifying lessons learned for Iraq lies in the intangibility of the political culture that accepts territorial minority protection and negotiations over the majoritarian system. The federal system of Switzerland is also very expensive and, combined with direct democracy, could be a recipe for immobilism.
Finally, federalism is not a panacea. The implosions of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have shown how a federal construct can disintegrate once the central authority loses its grip on power. A federation is not viable in the long-term if trust and tolerance is missing among the various political constituents.

1 See, for example; “Constructing Kurdistan: Why shouldn’t Iraq become a bi-national federation?” By Brendan O’Leary, March 2004. “Iraq Needs Territorially-Based Federalism”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, by Adeed Dawisha, Nov 2003, Vol. 1, Issue 5. “Kurdistan and a Federal Iraq: How the Kurds Created Facts on the Ground”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; by Peter W. Galbraith, November 2003, Vol. 1, Issue 5. “The Kurds in Iraq”, Middle East Policy, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring 2004. “Multi-national Federalism, Federacy, Power-Sharing and the Kurds of Iraq”, by Brendan O’Leary. Text to accompany key-note address to the Conference “Multi-nationalism, Power-Sharing and the Kurds in a New Iraq”, Cafritz Foundation Conference Center, George Washington University, 12 Sept 2003.

2 Presentation of Brahimi, 27 April 2004.

3 An overwhelming majority, (almost all) respondents, identified reducing unemployment as the most effective way of increasing security in the country. See results of opinion polls, “Iraqis Say Coalition Troops are Vital Now, But Prefer Handoff to Own Security Forces”, 6 January 2004, by the US State Department Office of Research.

4 Marianne Meier, “Some aspects of Swiss Federalism”. Institut du Fédéralisme Fribourg Suisse, 2001.

5 Brendan O’Leary argues that “Multi-national federations are workable. Switzerland and Canada are among the world’s oldest states – they have lasted in recognizably similar forms since 1848 and 1867 respectively”. “Multi-national Federalism, Federacy, Power-Sharing and the Kurds of Iraq”, by Brendan O’Leary. Text to accompany keynote address to the Conference “Multi-nationalism, Power-Sharing and the Kurds in a New Iraq”, Cafritz Foundation Conference Center, George Washington University, 12 Sept 2003.

6 Fleiner, p. 7.

7 Article 3 of the 1999 Federal Constitution states that “The Cantons are sovereign insofar as their sovereignty is not limited by the Federal Constitution; they shall exercise all rights which are not transferred to the Confederation”.

8 P.106, “Designing Europe: Comparative Lessons from the Federal Experience”, by David McKay. Oxford University Press, 2001.

9 A total of about 300 Swiss were killed; the victorious side suffered more casualties than the loser.

10 (“We, the Swiss People and Cantons,”) which differs from federal states such as the US, for instance, that pursue a majoritarian and melting pot approach: “We the people”.

11 Swiss Federal Constitution, art 72 par.2.

12 In 2003, 11 (out of 26) cantons used this prerogative to prevent the passing of federal fiscal package that would have had important financial consequences to the cantons.

13 McKay, 2001.

14 “The so-called “magic formula” (until 2003 the composition was 2 liberals + 2 conservatives + 2 socialists + 1 member of the people’s party, now it is 2/1/2/2) ensures a governmental participation for all major parties… This formula was able to surmount different crisis and helped to provide a stable political system in the country”. “Some Aspects of Swiss Federalism, by Marianne Meier, 2000. Institut du Fédéralisme Fribourg Suisse.

15 Lidja Basta Fleiner, “Trust and Tolerance as State Making Values in Multicultural Societies”, paper presented at the GCSP, 11 May 2004.

16 P.110, “Designing Europe: Comparative Lessons from the Federal Experience”, by David McKay. Oxford University Press, 2001.

17 Appenzell Innerrhoden and Ausserrhoden, Basel Stadt and Land, and Unterwalden, which consists of Nid- and Obwalden.

18 Ein Jubiläum als Fest und Test der Reife, 400 Jahre geteiltes Appenzellerland; in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 06.01.1997; p. 11 and, Martin Körner; Glaubensspaltung und Wirtschaftssolidarität (Kapitel 4); in: Geschichte der Schweiz und der Schweizer; Basel, 1986; pg. 428-429.

19 “Federalism and the Resolution of Minority Conflicts”, by Walter Kälin. In Federalism against Ethnicity? Institutional, Legal and Democratic Instruments to Prevent Violent Minority Conflicts”, Günther Bächler (ed.).

20 Transitional Administrative Law, Article 9, states that:

“The Arabic language and the Kurdish language are the two official languages of Iraq. The right of Iraqis to educate their children in their mother tongue, such as Turcoman, Syriac, or Armenian, in government educational institutions in accordance with educational guidelines, or in any other language in private educational institutions, shall be guaranteed.  The scope of the term “official language” and the means of applying the provisions of this Article shall be defined by law and shall include:

(1) Publication of the official gazette, in the two languages;

(2) Speech and expression in official settings, such as the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers, courts, and official conferences, in either of the two languages;

(3) Recognition and publication of official documents and correspondence in the two languages;

(4) Opening schools that teach in the two languages, in accordance with educational guidelines;

(5) Use of both languages in any other settings enjoined by the principle of equality (such as bank notes, passports, and stamps);

(6) Use of both languages in the federal institutions and agencies in the Kurdistan region.”

21 Swiss Constitution, Article 72, par. 2

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