Landsgemeinde (German: [ˈlantsɡəˌmaɪndə]) or "cantonal
assembly" is a public, non-secret ballot voting system operating by
majority rule, which constitutes one of the oldest forms of direct
democracy. Still at use – in a few places – at the subnational
political level in Switzerland, it was formerly practiced in eight
cantons. For practical reasons, the
Landsgemeinde has been abolished
at the cantonal level in all but two cantons where it still holds the
highest political authority:
Appenzell Inner Rhodes and Glarus. The
Landsgemeinde is also being convened in some districts of Appenzell
Schwyz to vote on local questions.
The German term
Landsgemeinde itself is attested from at least the
16th century, in the 1561 dictionary of Pictorius. It is a compound
from Land "land, canton; rural canton" and Gemeinde "community,
Eligible citizens of the canton or district meet on a certain day in
the open air to decide on specific issues. Voting is accomplished by
those in favor of a motion raising their hands. Historically, or in
Appenzell until the admission of women, the only proof of citizenship
necessary for men to enter the voting area was to show their
ceremonial sword or Swiss military sidearm (bayonet); this gave proof
that you were a freeman allowed to bear arms and to vote.
Landsgemeinde has been the sovereign institution of the Swiss
rural cantons since the later Middle Ages, while in the city-cantons
such as Lucerne, Schaffhausen, or Bern, a general assembly of all
citizens was never established.
Similar assemblies in dependent territories were known under terms
such as Talgemeinde (for Talschaften, used in Ursern, Hasli,
Obersimmental), Teding (Engelberg), Parlamento (Leventina),
Zendgemeinden (for the Zenden or districts of Valais), but also as
Toggenburg and in parts of Grisons.
1.2 Subject of the votes
2.2 Evolution and current situation
3 Related political paradigms and criticisms
3.1 Direct democracy
4 See also
At the Landsgemeinde, citizens of a district or canton assemble
annually in a public space under open sky to vote on a series of
ballot questions. Depending on the canton, they raise their hand or
voter identification card to either accept or reject the motion, which
constitutes a non-secret ballot. Decision is taken by majority rule,
and in case of incertitude, the
Landammann estimates on which side the
majority falls with the help of his colleagues from the communal
The duration of the
Landsgemeinde varies significantly between the two
cantons that still convene it. In Glarus, because of the high level of
deliberation and possibility for citizens to propose an amendment of
an existing law article or the introduction of a new one, the
Landsgemeinde lasts between 2 and 4.5 hours on average. In Appenzell
Inner Rhodes on the other hand, deliberation is limited, thus the
Landsgemeinden usually end after 1 to 2.5 hours.
Subject of the votes
Symptomatic of the federalist system of Switzerland, the
Landsgemeinde differs in the scope of its usage from canton to canton.
The legislative power is concerned both in
Appenzell Inner Rhodes and
Glarus, where the
Landsgemeinde can be used to implement laws or
modify the cantonal constitution. In
Appenzell Inner Rhodes, the
Landsgemeinde can also cover governmental issues, while in Glarus
tax laws are regulated by
Landsgemeinde decision and alternative
legislative counter-proposals (‘constructive referendums’) can be
formulated by the citizens and voted on this occasion. In none of
the two cantons is the
Landsgemeinde used to elect the parliament.
Die Landsgemeinde, fresco in the Federal Palace of
Albert Welti and Wilhelm Balmer
Landsgemeinde assembly is a tradition with continuity back to the
later Middle Ages, first recorded in the context of the formation of
the Old Swiss Confederacy. The tradition ultimately continues the
Germanic thing, although not uninterruptedly, as the
Alamanni had lost
their independence to the
Frankish Empire in the 8th century, but
re-emerging in territories with imperial immediacy since the 13th
Landsgemeinde proper is attested for Uri in 1231; however,
these early assemblies grew as it were seamlessly out of the older
institution of blood courts (assemblies with the purpose of dispensing
judgement on criminal offenses, see high justice). The Middle Latin
texts when recording a
Landsgemeinde usually express this by making
universitas "the universality", or communitas hominum "the community
of men" of a certain canton the subject of a sentence (see, for
example, the Federal Charter of 1291), in order to emphasize that the
decision was made by the community (direct democracy) rather than by a
In the Old Swiss Confederacy, the existence of a
Landsgemeinde was the
defining feature of the rural cantons (Länderorte, as opposed to the
city-cantons). These Cantons were: Uri, Schwyz,
forest-cantons), Glarus and
Appenzell and Zug.
Zug took an
intermediate position, as it was a city-canton which due to the
existence of a
Landsgemeinde was also counted under the rural cantons.
With the formation of
Switzerland as a federal state, the formerly
sovereign cantonal assemblies became subject to federal law, and the
Landsgemeinden came to be seen as anachronisms.
Evolution and current situation
Landsgemeinde in Glarus
The usage of the
Landsgemeinde was progressively abandoned at the
cantonal level through the 19th and 20th century. Indeed,
Schwyz jettisoned it in 1848, followed by Uri in 1928.
Nidwalden in 1996,
Appenzell Outer Rhodes in 1997 and
Obwalden in 1998
abolished their cantonal
Landsgemeinde by secret ballot votes.
Appenzell Inner Rhodes, which rejected in 1991 by
Landsgemeinde the abolition of this institution, and Glarus are the
only remaining cantons to use this form of direct democracy. Beside
the 1991 vote of
Appenzell Inner Rhodes, the usage of the
Landsgemeinde has since then never been questioned in these two
cantons, which suggests that citizens are attached to their
institution. Moreover, turnout rates remained constant in the last 50
years both in
Appenzell Inner Rhodes and in Glarus. In the latter
canton a participation record of 50% was even recorded in 2001.
Canton of Glarus
Canton of Glarus recently introduced measures to encourage
participation at the Landsgemeinde. In 2007, participation was
extended to citizens aged 16 and older, which constitutes an exception
in Switzerland. Likewise, each year on the day of the
Landsgemeinde, participants can use all public transports of the
canton for free.
Appenzell Inner Rhodes and Glarus, the modernization of the
institution, for example through the potential introduction of
electronic vote-counting systems is debated, but no political party is
opposed to the maintenance of the Landsgemeinden.
Besides the cantonal assemblies, the Swiss Confederation is supporting
various projects inspired by the Landsgemeinden and built on the same
ideas. For instance, the 4th Cyber-
Landsgemeinde was organised on
April 6, 2016 in Bern, with the aim to use democratic deliberation to
foster reflections and find solutions related to the topic of
cyber-security. Likewise, the urban municipality of Kloten
implemented in 2012 a version of the
Landsgemeinde to deliberate on
the allocation of funds to local projects, which enabled for example
the construction of a new Kindergarten.
Related political paradigms and criticisms
Landsgemeinde forms one of the pillars of the direct democratic
core of the Swiss political structure. Even if its use has sharply
decreased in the past century, it is still considered as a
characteristic institution of the Swiss democracy and is generally
considered as a participative and inclusive democratic practice.
However, while participation is according to the cantonal
constitutions not only encouraged but also required as part of the
civic duty of the concerned individuals, it is unclear if the
Landsgemeinde offers better inclusivity and fosters a higher level of
participation than the more traditional secret-ballot voting
methods. Paul Lucardie (2014) notes for example that:
Evidence suggests that attendance at assemblies in
Glarus, as well as most town meetings in Vermont and possibly also in
ancient Athens, has always been limited to roughly twenty per cent of
Moreover, the inclusion of women was until recently one of the main
concerns for the inclusivity of the Landsgemeinde. Up to 1991, women
weren't allowed in the
Landsgemeinde in the canton of
Rhodes, which was the last canton of
Switzerland to grant women the
right to vote, making it an exceptionally late introduction of women's
suffrage for a European country.
There have been suggestions placing the
Landsgemeinde system in the
vicinity of "ochlocracy" or "tyranny of the majority".[clarification
needed][who?] Blum and Köhler (2006) suggested there might only be a
"limited level of preliminary debate" possible leading to a failure to
consider minority opinions.
The open ballot system ostensibly fails to assure the secrecy of the
Switzerland has explicitly introduced an exception to article 25
of its International Pact on Civil and Political Rights in order to
protect the Landsgemeinde, avoiding to comply with the letter of
article 21.3 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights protecting
the secrecy of the vote. 
Switzerland has never ratified the first
convention protocol of the
European Convention on Human Rights
European Convention on Human Rights for a
Under such conditions, social control and other crowd manipulation
processes might then prevent citizens from voting according to their
own preferences and mislead rational decisions. On the other hand,
according to the Greek antic tradition of parrhesia -literally "saying
everything"- a public assembly could teach individuals to express
their opinions with frankness and collective responsibility.
Studies of outcomes of the
Landsgemeinde in various administrative
divisions (Schaub 2012, Gerber & Mueller 2014)
seem to suggest that proper preliminary deliberation can help reach
better decisions defined by the "unforced force of the better
argument" (Habermas, 1992) [clarification needed]
Voting in Switzerland
^ Stadler, Hans. (2008) Historical Dictionary of Switzerland,
^ a b Ueber die Macht des kleinen Buergers. Tagblatt, 28 April 2013.
^ The Federal Council, portal of the Swiss government. (2012) Swiss
Federalism "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 14 July
2016. Retrieved 24 June 2016.
Appenzell Inner Rhodes Archived 3 March 2016 at the
^ Glarus Landsgemeinde
^ a b Schaub (2012), p. 309.
^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 20 April 2016.
Retrieved 10 April 2016.
^ Schaub (2012), 322-323.
^ Lucardie, Paul.(2014) Democratic Extremism in Theory and Practice:
All Power to the People. 56
^ Geschichte-schweiz.ch (2004) Switzerland's Long Way to Women's Right
^ Blum, R., Köhler, B. (2006). Partizipation und Deliberation in der
Versammlungsdemokratie. Schweizer Landsgemeinden mit
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Jarren (ed.), Demokratie in der Mediengesellschaft (285–303).
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and Democracy in Ancient Athens. 85-90.
^ Habermas, Jürgen. (1992) Deliberative Politics: A Procedural
Concept of Democracy. 306
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