BlogPublished on 09.10.2023

Observing Swiss Federalism

Khim Lal Devkota, PhD, Member of the Nepali Federal Parliament

Nepal, having promulgated its federal Constitution in 2015, stands as one of the most recently established federal nations. The Constitution of Nepal divides state power between the federation, the provinces, and the local level. The rights and functional responsibilities of the sub-federal levels have been outlined in the Constitution. Its formal implementation was initiated only after the 2017 election. As the implementation of federalism is a new endeavor, various challenges have emerged. With provincial governments becoming operational, problems have arisen between the federal and sub-federal levels on issues such as security force adjustment, staffing, legislation, selecting and implementing programs and projects, fiscal transfers and sharing of revenue, capacity building, and land acquisition, among others.

To resolve these issues and enhance the stability of a federation, an effective mechanism for intergovernmental relations is vital. Inter-governmental relations (IGR) play a crucial role in maintaining policy uniformity and harmony among the federal units, which helps prevent conflicts and manage them based on mutual agreement. IGR have often been compared to a type of oil or friction in any federal machine.  Switzerland is recognized as one of the classical federations. Its political system traces its origins back to the Federal Constitution of 12 September 1848, and in 2023 the country is celebrating the 175th anniversary of that first Federal Constitution (however the Constitution was changed twice since then, in 1874 and 1999).

I have observed Swiss federalism from an external perspective, but I have not had the opportunity to experience it closely. With an invitation from the University of Fribourg and its Institute of Federalism (IFF), I visited Switzerland as a guest researcher. Here, I aimed at gaining a personal understanding of Swiss federalism and explore the vertical and horizontal mechanisms of IGR, particularly between the federal and cantonal level, among the cantons and between the cantons and the municipalities. My research stay lasted from 27 August to 10 September 2023, and the International Center of the Institute of Federalism played a pivotal role in making my dream of visiting Switzerland coming true.

During my stay, I spent a substantial amount of time in formal discussions and meetings, aside from consulting relevant books and policy documents in the well-equipped library at the IFF. Around the topic of federalism and IGR in Switzerland, I engaged in productive discussions with several distinguished individuals, including Prof. Eva Maria Belser and Prof. Bernhard Waldmann, Co-Directors of the Institute and professors of Constitutional and Administrative Law; Dr. Soeren Keil, Academic Head of the International Research and Consulting Center at the Institute and Dr. Marlène Collette, Academic Head of the National Center.  Additionally, I had valuable conversations with Prof. Peter Haenni, former Director of the Institute, Dr. Nicolas Schmitt, former Senior Researcher at the Institute, Dr. Sean Müller, Assistant Professor at the University of Lausanne and Dr. Johanna Schnabel, Lecturer at the Free University of Berlin.

Regarding parliamentary matters, I engaged in discussions with Honorable Mathias Zopfi, Member of the Council of States, and Ms. Martina Buol and Ms. Annette Feitscher, Secretary and Deputy Secretary of the Council of States (the second chamber of parliament). Similarly, I had fruitful discussions with the Cantonal Government of Bern, represented by Mr. Lukas Röthenmund, Deputy Secretary General of the Finance Department, and Mr. Beat Zimmermann, Cantonal Financial Planner, as well as with "The Conference of Cantonal Governments," where Mr. Thomas Minger, Deputy Secretary General and Head of the Domestic Policy Division, and Mr. Roland Mayer, Head of the Foreign Policy Division, shared their practical experiences concerning federal, cantonal, inter-cantonal, and canton-to-municipality relationships.

Furthermore, I met with the Nepali community residing in Switzerland and discussed the Swiss federalism experience with them. I also visited the Nepali Embassy in Geneva, engaging in discussions on various federalism and diplomatic matters. Outside the Institute, there was excellent coordination between the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland and the Nepali Embassy in Switzerland, both actively participating in the meetings.

Ms. Delilah von Streng, Research Fellow, and Sebastien Luo, Administrative Assistant at the Institute of Federalism, oversaw the overall coordination of my research stay program. In fact, I received valuable cooperation and assistance from all the Institute's staff, including the library, and I also had the opportunity to share my experiences with the Institute through an in-house seminar.

From my observations, the relationship between the federal government and the sub-federal levels in Switzerland is highly cooperative, in which each level of government is respecting the rights of the others and in which their interactions are rather harmonious. The municipalities operate under cantonal law; however, they enjoy significant autonomy and are usually responsible for local economic and infrastructure development, as well as public service delivery. The principle of subsidiarity is deeply ingrained in every Swiss government institution and is on the lips of every Swiss citizen.

Beyond federalism and intergovernmental relations, Swiss political culture places a strong emphasis on democratic norms and principles, and the country upholds the rule of law with well-defined governing bodies. In my view, any federal country can glean valuable lessons from Switzerland's federalism and democratic practices.

In a relatively short period, I gained invaluable insights into Swiss federalism and intergovernmental relationships. My observations have also been reflected in publications in my home country's renowned English daily, The Kathmandu Post.