Democratic Consolidation in Switzerland, 1848-1918

In the case of heterogeneous and politically divided societies, the literature on democratic consolidation often recommends relying on rules and practices that disperse political power (e.g. Lijphart, 1991; Linder, 1994; Schneider, 2008). However, the relationship between democratic consolidation and power dispersion is complex, because actors critical of democratization may use democratic rules and processes to halt democratic consolidation. Other scholars have therefore recommended the concentration of power to create stable governments and exclude non-democratic groups from power.

In this project, we (Patrick Emmenegger, Lucas Leemann and André Walter) examine the complex relationship between democratic consolidation, power dispersion, and the use of (non-)democratic rules and processes to further or stop this consolidation process in Switzerland from 1848 onward. After the short civil war of 1847 and subsequent creation of the federal state in 1848, Switzerland’s young democracy was confronted with several societal groups skeptical of the federal state and democracy. We examine how the societal groups controlling political power in the early decades used non-democratic means to limit the power of societal groups critical of democratization. At the same time, we explore how these societal groups critical of democracy used instruments provided by the democratic political system in order to limit democratic consolidation or the development of state capacity. Ultimately, we ask whether and how (non-)democratic rules and processes were used to further or stop the democratic consolidation in Switzerland.

We focus on three distinct aspects of democratic consolidation and power dispersion at cantonal and national level: suffrage restrictions to exclude certain societal groups, the adaptation of electoral district boundaries for political reasons (redistricting), and direct democratic rules and practices. While restrictions on suffrage and the use of redistricting to achieve partisan advantages (often called “gerrymandering”) are prominent examples of electoral malpractice (Schedler, 2002; Birch, 2011), the role of direct democracy is rather specific to Switzerland, but certainly no less relevant. For each aspect, we ask how these rules and practices were used to further or halt democratic consolidation, how the rules were adapted to improve democratic processes, and what kind of effects these democratization reforms had on political outcomes.

Methodologically, we lay particular emphasis on the micro-foundations of historical processes. Following recent developments in democratization research (most notably Ziblatt, 2009), we look at subnational variation, both at cantonal and district level, as well as direct democratic procedures and roll-call votes in parliament. Typically based on archival research, these new methodological approaches to democratization research combine the comparative strengths of historical research regarding primary sources and context-sensitivity with the powerful methodological tool-kit of the social sciences. It is not least with regard to these methodological approaches that Switzerland offers excellent conditions for research on democratic consolidation, as historical documents are often available, direct democratic procedures and cantonal variation allow for subnational analysis, and roll-call votes in parliament were quite common.

The findings of our research will contribute to a better understanding of how young democracies consolidate and institutional choices are shaped by political and social conflicts. In addition, we examine the strategies used by young democracies to deal with societal groups critical of democracy, which is of particular importance given the current rise of anti-system parties. As a secondary contribution of this research project, we aim to make the collected data publicly available to further research on democratic consolidation and political reform in Switzerland.