Mr. Winchester to Mr. Bayard.
Berne , November 10, 1887. (Received November 21.)
Sir: Switzerland, formerly composed of a number of semi-independent states or cantons, each with its special laws, privileges, and institutions, each maintaining a distinct military force, and constituting a “Staatenbund,” became, in 1848, a united confederacy or “Bundesstaat,” the supreme legislative and executive authority being vested in a “Bundesversommlung” or federal assembly, composed of two chambers, the “Standerath” or council of States, and the “Nationalrath” or national council. The latter is the popular branch of the assembly, chosen by direct election every third year, one representative being allotted to every 20,000 population and fraction over 10,000. The regular triennial elections for members were held on Sunday, the 30th ultimo. These elections are held under a federal law, but through state or cantonal machinery. It devolves on the federal council or Swiss cabinet to fix the date of the elections. Sunday is invariably designated as the day and a date named that will give abundant time for the holding of the second and third elections that may be necessary for a result before the meeting of the national council on the first Monday in December, as provided in the constitution. The recent elections were for members of the fourteenth national council under the present constitution. The terms of the elected members will begin the first Monday of next month, December, and end the first Monday of December, 1890. The national council at this time is composed of one hundred and forty-five members, and of these one hundred and forty-one were chosen on the 30th ultimo, four having failed of election. For purposes of representation in this body Switzerland is divided into forty-nine arrondissements [Page 1508] or districts, entitled on a basis of population to from one to five members each. Each district must be wholly within one canton or state. Any Swiss who has not lost or forfeited his political rights and is twenty years of age, with the exception of ecclesiastics, is eligible as a member. The voting is by scrutin de liste, and a majority of the votes cast is required for an election. When this majority is not received by a number equal to the representation to which the district is entitled, a second election is held the following Sunday to complete the list of members, at which the same freedom in the scrutin de liste is permitted as in the first; but if an election again fails, a third one is held, when the scrutin de liste is confined to those who received the largest vote at the preceding election and not exceeding three times the number to be elected, and in this third election a plurality is sufficient for a choice. There is no registration of voters required, but in both national and cantonal elections there may be said to be a permanent registration, as the result of the registration of citizenship which is demanded of strangers and citizens alike, for even a permis de sejour beyond a very limited time within any district or commune, and from this record every citizen entitled to a vote is sent a “card” of citizenship, which he must present when appearing at the polls. Of the one hundred and forty-five members of the old national council, one hundred and twenty-four are returned to the new, making a change of membership of twenty-one, of which three resulted from the death of old members, sixteen voluntarily retired, leaving only two who sought and failed of re-election. This well-established continuity of service in the Swiss national legislative department answers fuHy the baseless theories of those who are fond of declaiming against the caprice and ingratitude of the people, and telling us that under democratic forms of government neither men nor measures can remain for an hour unchanged. The spirit which made democratic Athens year by year bestow her highest offices on the patrician Pericles and the reactionary Phocion still lives in the democracies of this little Republic and in its federal assembly. The ministers of kings, whether despotic or constitutional, may vainly envy the sure tenure of office which falls to the lot of those who are chosen to rule in the whole confederation or in the single canton. Ee-election is the rule; the rejection of the outgoing officer is the rare exception. There is one member of the national council who has served continuously from the date of its organization in 1848, and many for more than twenty years. Among the deputies chosen at the recent election appear the names of six out of the seven of the members of the present federal council, all whom, it is well understood, will be reelected by the federal assembly in December to the same positions they now hold, when they will at once resign their seats in the assembly, and elections must be held to fill the vacancies. It is a very strange custom and apparently incapable of any intelligent explanation; like many customs, has simply taken root without any inquiry, and propagates itself without opposition, save in one district, where, of recent years, it has been disregarded, accounting for the absence of the seventh member of the council from the list of deputies. Originally these councilors, when elected to the assembly, took their seats when it convened, exercising all the functions of a member, and at the same time serving as active members of the council or cabinet until they were re-elected to the council for another term of three years, which usually took place in the early days of the session, when they resigned their seats in the assembly and resumed their single service of councilors. But for many years the concurrent exercise of the rights and privileges belonging to these two distinct offices, one legislative, the other executive, whilst not inhibited [Page 1509] by the constitution, has been considered inconsistent with the spirit of that instrument and the division of power evidently contemplated by it; and whilst the practice continues of electing these men to the assembly and their names are placed on the rolls, and as a matter of fact and law they are vested with the full rights of members, they exercise only those which are incident to their office of federal councilors, a seat in the assembly with participation in debate, but neither vote nor accept the salary of a member. The practical result, therefore, is to have from the meeting of the assembly until the re-election of these men to the council, their resignation, and elections held to fill the vacancies, six mere nominal members of the body, or, in other words, a membership for working purposes of only one hundred and thirty-nine instead of one hundred and forty-five. At every recurring election for the national council the sitting members from the districts wherein the federal councilors reside must make room for this temporary appearance of theirs in the assembly. The requisite number are ever ready to come forward and cheerfully consent to stand aside for this purpose, regarding the tenure thus conferred as merely a locum tenens and in nowise impairing, but rather making more sure, their ultimate re election after a traditional custom has been accommodated. There is but one reason assigned for the adherence to this practice, involving much inconvenience and the expense of a double election in six cases, and that is the desire, notwithstanding the duties and character of a federal councilor is entirely national, to keep up his identity with a local constituency, which, probably, he served for years in the assembly before promotion to the council, and as an evidence of his being in accord with that constituency upon all questions of public policy, certainly a most remarkable assertion of local government influence in a purely national affair.
Of the personnel of the assembly, it seems strange that in a country where a court-house or a lawyer’s sign is rarely to be seen and litigation exceptionally resorted to, that so many of its leading citizens should appear as following that profession, “advokats” composing as they do, one-fourth of the membership of the assembly; next in number come merchants, then farmers, physicians, bankers, and professors, with one-third of the whole list given as holders of various cantonal and communal offices, it being very common in Switzerland for a national, cantonal, and communal office to be filled by the same person where duties do not conflict and belong to the same general class. This is regarded as both simplifying and cheapening the public service. The political complexion of the national council remains about the same, being 80 Radical Democrats, 40 Conservatives, and 25 Ultramontanes.
It is impossible to define with any clearness the party lines. The three above given constitute the most distinct general political organizations, but within them are many different shades of opinion that separate on questions of a social, religious, and economical nature. Then these party divisions have an entirely different significance in federal and cantonal matters. The Liberal and Radical of the canton of Vaud is by no means the same as the Liberal and Radical of the cantons of Zurich and Argovie. The Democrat and Radical of Geneva is very different from the Democrat and Radical of St. Galle. It is said that the Liberals or Radicals are those who seek to give the broadest interpretation to the constitution so as enlarge the field of federal authority and strengthen the central government, whilst the Conservatives are jealous of every encroachment upon the traditional prerogatives of cantonal power and desire to restrict and narrow the limits of federal action; but even as to [Page 1510] these questions the parties have several times shifted positions both in federal and cantonal contests. These party divisions seldom appear in the deliberations of the assembly, there being a substantial unanimity on most public questions and general policy of legislation. When in session they impress the observer as business men consulting informally about the common interests with an entire absence of oratory, questions of privilege, points of order or parliamentary tactics; they talk and vote, and there is an end of it. The outgoing assembly during its three years’ term had eight sessions; two annually, December and June, required by the constitution, covering one hundred and sixty-nine days. Considering the scope of the powers exercised by the Swiss federal Assembly very little popular interest seems to be taken in the election of the members, for it exercises a power far greater than that which belongs probably to any legislative assembly, at least in a republic where there is a pretense of distribution of power between the several departments of Government. There is no other country where the direct popular vote has the same authority as here in the choice of its representatives. The federal constitution declares that “with reservation of the rights of the people and of the cantons the supreme power in the confederation is to be exercised by the federal assembly.” It is the final arbiter in all questions as to the respective jurisdiction of the executive and the judiciary. In an important ecclesiastical matter last winter, there being some doubt as to whether it belonged to the federal assembly or the federal tribunal (judiciary), the parties interested submitted their memorial to both of them. In its political as in its social organization Switzerland is complacently insular and intensely localized, maintaining composedly and contentedly many usages and ideas of the past.
I am, etc.,