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Landsgemeinde Appenzell—Grass Root Democracy in Action

When Bertold Suhner, the founder of Metrohm AG, stepped down as president of the company, he wanted to make sure Metrohm would stay committed as an employer to the local community of Herisau and his home canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden. Establishing the non-profit Metrohm foundation, he found a way to safeguard his legacy. The Metrohm foundation makes sure that Metrohm AG stays independent, can go steadily about its business, and thrive—firmly committed to Herisau and to Appenzell Ausserrhoden. Indeed, minding one’s own business and not become the subject of the will and rule of others runs deep in the history and political culture of the Appenzellers and of Switzerland in general. Last Sunday, I had a chance to witness this political culture live when I attended the «Landsgemeinde» in Appenzell as a bystander.

Much older than all modern democracies

I arrived early to find a place from which I would have a good view of the «Landsgemeindeplatz», the public square in the middle of Appenzell where the «Landsgemeinde” comes together. Before I continue, let me explain a little bit more about the «Appenzeller Landsgemeinde», its history, and what it is all about.

Raising your right hand is the way people pass their vote at the «Landsgemeinde Appenzell».

Appenzell is a neighboring community of Herisau and the capital of Appenzell Innerrhoden (the other half canton of the canton Appenzell). The «Landsgemeinde» is a rare and remarkable institution of grass root democracy, which dates back to the year 1378. Every year on the last Sunday in April, the local citizens (you have to be Swiss and a local resident to qualify for participation) come together in the open air to constitute themselves as the «Landsgemeinde», the sovereign of the federal Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden. During the «Landsgemeinde», the citizens elect and confirm their government and discuss an agenda of current local political issues, which is then voted on item by item simply by estimating the majority of arms raised.

A colorful tradition—and the most important event of the political calendar

When I arrived at the Landsgemeindeplatz around half past ten, it was still almost empty. What I saw was two large circles roped in, an inner circle and an outer circle with a corridor between the inner and the outer circle. As I waited, more and more people filled the square. Only citizens of Appenzell are allowed to the inner circle, and every individual person has to identify himself or herself with a kind of ID card before he or she is allowed to enter the inner circle. The people of Appenzell were all wearing their best clothes and most of the men had a sabre with them, a traditional accessory that identified them as a member of the «Landsgemeinde».

Ignazio Cassis, the current foreign secretary of Switzerland (the guy in the dark suit).

The magistrates of Appenzell Innerrhoden  marching in. The police are wearing historic uniforms.

At 12 o’clock sharp, the procession consisting of the government, the high court, and invited dignitaries (mainly from politics, the military, and civil society), and flag throwers started marching very slowly to the tunes of a marching band from the local church to the «Landsgemeindeplatz». This year, the highest invited dignitary was Ignazio Cassis, the current foreign secretary of Switzerland. It took more than half an hour before the whole procession had arrived at the lower end of the «Landsgemeindeplatz», where the government climbed a kind of wooden platform facing the assembled citizens of Appenzell (more than 3000 last Sunday, I would say).

A very efficient procedure …

The government of Appenzell Ausserrhoden facing their fellow citizens from a wooden platform, the so-called «Stuhl» (Chair).

The Landsgemeinde starts off with the «Landammann» saluting the sovereign citizens of Appenzell Innerrhoden. Then both the government and the assembled citizens take an oath to act in the best interest of their canton. The «Landsgemeinde» is also the occasion at which the sovereign citizens of Appenzell Ausserrhoden elect or confirm the «Landammann», the head of the local executive body together with the other members of the local government, as well as the president and the members of the local high court. Apparently, the Appenzellers are quite happy with their current government and members of the high court, as they were all confirmed by a huge majority of the assembled citizens. Only a new «Säckelmeister», the finance secretary, had to be elected, because the previous magistrate had to resign due to ill health. Three candidates stood for election, and it took less than five minutes before Appenzell Innerrhoden had a new finance secretary.

Young people standing in line to be let into the inner ring of the «Landsgemeindeplatz». Some of the men are wearing their sabre; the blue card serves to identify the holder in order to be let in.

At the «Landsgemeinde», every citizen is entitled to address his fellow citizens, present his view on the topic at hand, and thereby directly impact the political discussion and decision-making. Last Sunday, for example, there was an extensive debate with many contributions about the pros and cons of building a new communal hospital before a majority of the «Landsgemeinde» decided in favor of the project in a final vote.

… and a very inspiring experience

What I found also very remarkable was the degree to which young people participated in the «Landsgemeinde», quite a number of them possibly for the first time. You could see and feel that they are very proud of their status as a local citizen and the right to vote that comes with this status. In times where democracy shows symptoms of attrition in many Western countries, there was no sign in Appenzell on that day of people losing faith in the democratic process—after almost 700 years!

By the way, Appenzell Ausserrhoden (of which Herisau is the capital) did have its own «Landsgemeinde» too, for centuries, and until 1997. In that year, the people of Appenzell Ausserrhoden voted to abolish their «Landsgemeinde»—at the ballot box.

3 Comments

  • Markus

    A big difference between the Appenzell Innerrhoden and the abolished Appenzell Ausserrhoden Landsgemeinde was the open discussion. While in Appenzell every citizen can directly argue in the “Ring”. In Appenzell Ausserroden the “Landsgemeinde” only took decisions without discussion.
    This might be one of the reasons why it was replaced by the ballot box. This of course besides the democratic arguments of giving really everybody the chance to vote. Not to forget the traditionalists point that the “Landsgemeinde” wasn’t the same after introduction of womens right to vote.

    May 1, 2018 - 7:04 am Reply
  • C.S.Ramachandran

    In these days when we hear about voter apathy and a general indifference to matters concerning the State among the millennials, it is good to see young citizens showing much interest in the affairs of the Government even at a Cantonal level.

    May 1, 2018 - 11:55 am Reply
  • Roman

    A significant aspect of this event seems to be a certain “cool factor”. It is not just about voting in public. It is just as much about meeting friends and party together – after the official part of the day is over.

    May 1, 2018 - 1:09 pm Reply

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