By Aravinth Kumar –
Switzerland (officially known as the Swiss Confederation) is a country made up of four native ethnic groups; Swiss Germans (making up 2/3rd of the population; live mainly in the north, centre and east), Swiss French (largest minority group at 20%; live mainly in the west, which is known non-officially as Romandie), Swiss Italians (around 7%; live mainly in the south-east) and the Romansh (0.5%). What is striking is that each of the three big ethnic groups live next door to their respective country of language origin i.e. the Swiss Germans live next to Germany, the Swiss French next to France and the Swiss Italians next to Italy. Switzerland as a nation should not really exist! Yet, it does. Switzerland has somehow been able to maintain all these different ethnic groups in one united country. So how come, even though Switzerland has a “large majority, large minority” situation like Sri Lanka, it has not been confounded by the same ethnic problem that Sri Lanka has had to deal with? How come the Swiss French have never fought to separate and form a new country called “Romandie” (or even merge with France)?
*Swiss Federal Statistical Office; census of 2000 – Source – Wikipedia, Marco Zanoli.
It all comes down to the way in which the country is governed. Switzerland is a federal parliamentary republic consisting of 26 cantons. The unity of the country is upheld by the Federal Council (executive level) and a two-tier parliament (legislative level). Collectively, they are in charge of managing the country’s foreign affairs, defence and security policies, financial matters and enacting legislation that applies throughout the whole country (the federal laws always takes precedence). The cantons are equivalent in size to a district in Sri Lanka. Just like the districts, each canton is mainly inhibited by one ethnic group; 17 cantons are German-speaking, 4 cantons are French-speaking, 1 canton is Italian-speaking, 3 cantons are bilingual (German and French) and 1 canton is trilingual (German, Italian and Romansh). However, unlike the districts, each canton is provided a large degree of autonomy; they have their own constitution, legislature, government and courts. The cantons are responsible for their own healthcare, welfare, law enforcement, education and taxation.
The reason behind why each canton is provided a large degree of autonomy is due to Switzerland’s recognition that the population needs in each canton differ due to the political, social and economic problems peculiar to that particular canton itself (this is even the case between two linguistically similar cantons). They have understood that a cantonal government compared to a central government, which may be situated on the other side of the country, has a greater ability at formulating policies which meet the local needs. This is because, not only do the cantonal government representatives live in proximity to the people, they are usually from the same community. As a result, they are in a better position to understand the problems in their canton and offer unique solutions which take into account the distinct culture, history, language and religious practise.
Furthermore, with each canton having the means to develop their respective region, it has allowed for a greater spread of development countrywide. This has prevented just the capital city and its surrounding area to develop like we find in Sri Lanka. For example, the German speaking Zürich, the bilingual speaking Federal Capital Bern and French speaking Geneva (found in the north-central, centre and extreme south-west respectively) are all ranked in the top ten most liveable cities in the world by Mercer. More so, Zürich and Geneva are both ranked in the top ten leading global cities.
In my opinion, this is the defining reason why Switzerland has not been challenged with ethnic problems. I believe that the root cause of the ethnic problem comes down to accessibility. The reason the Swiss Germans, French and Italians are able to co-exist peacefully is due to each group having the ability to access the most coveted jobs due to their respective cantons having the power to bring job creating investments. This has stopped a situation of unequal distribution and thus prevented a situation where one ethnic group perceives (which may be reality or not) that they are being discriminated against. This has unfortunately not been the case in Sri Lanka were accessibility has always been unequally distributed. This inability to access the best education or jobs has been what led the Sinhalese and Tamils turning to extremist elements. For example, if we look at Sri Lanka pre 1956 and post 1956 we can see that in each era one ethnic group was cut off from the best jobs. Pre 1956, the most sought after jobs where mainly accessible by the Tamils. This was due to the need to be fluent in English and the disproportionate number of English medium schools being located in the Tamil north. This meant the majority of Sinhalese were cut off from the best paid jobs, leading to a large income disparity with the Tamils. Stuck in poorly paid jobs, the Sinhalese where easily swayed by the newly formed Sinhalese nationalist party, the SLFP, who were campaigning for Sinhala to replace English. Consequently, with the SLFP easily winning the 1956 election and making Sinhala the official language, the best jobs became inaccessible to most Tamils. This in turn created a large aggravated group who became easily influenced by extreme Tamil nationalists.
However, the Swiss model also has the advantage of bringing benefits to the most deprived individuals in one ethnic group. The Sinhalese have had their fair share of protests and riots aimed at a government dominated by “their” people e.g. the JVP uprising. Numerous governments in Sri Lanka have failed to bring quality jobs to the youth in the rural districts, such as in the Monaragala district, where poverty is rampant. This is completely different to Switzerland, where irrespective if a Swiss German lives in the north or the south, they both equally have access to the same (high) standard of living.
Sri Lankan’s parliamentary and/or presidential elections are synonymous with majority and minority political parties scapegoating the opposing ethnic groups for political gain. More so, it is common to see the largest parties (SLFP and UNP) appealing purely to the Sinhalese community, since gaining the majority of Sinhalese vote generally ensures a win. This “divide and rule” tactic used by politicians has only ever had the effect of arousing communal conflicts. Yet, even though Switzerland’s political parties can also appeal purely to the German majority, this is not seen.
The reason is, firstly, the German politicians are in no position to be able to scapegoat the problems the German community faces on the minorities. This is because, each of the German cantons has power, and hence the faults lie with the German representatives of that respective canton. Secondly, all political parties run on a pan Swiss identity i.e. there are no parties which run on a communal line like in Sri Lanka with the likes of the TNA, SLMC and JHU. Lastly, the structure of the federal level is created in such a way that no ethnic group holds excessive power. The federal level is split between two levels; bicameral parliament (legislative) and the Federal Council (executive). Parliament is formed of two houses; the Council of States (46 representatives where each canton are represented by two members and each half canton are represented by one member) and the National Council (200 members who are elected under a system of proportional representation based on the population of the cantons). Due to this structure, the voice of each ethnic canton is represented; hence no ethnic group can push for legislation which favours one ethnic group over another. Additionally, the Federal Council of Switzerland is also representative of both the majority and minority. This is because the executive powers are not centred with one individual, rather it’s collectively shared between seven members (known as councillors; the seven councillors each hold one of the seven cabinet positions) who are chosen from different ethnic cantons. As things currently stand, the Federal Council is made up of 5 German and 2 French councillors.
For too long, we have looked at the USA, UK and India as a model of governance to bring lasting peace. These have been tried and failed models. Most agree, Tamil and Sinhalese alike, that the Indian pushed “13th Amendment” will not bring long lasting peace. Therefore, I firmly believe it is time for us to instead tailor a new governance system based on the Swiss federal model. After all, it is a system which has shown to be workable in a similar sized country which has a small but diverse multi-linguistic population. It has created a country where one can be proud to be a German, French or Italian whilst also being proud to be Swiss. Funnily enough, this federal structure came about a few years after Switzerland’s own civil war 200 years ago. Since then, Switzerland has not faced an internal (or external) armed conflict which is testament to how well the federal structure has worked.
Below is a brief outline of how Sri Lanka would operate under a Swiss style model of governance.
- Three official languages; Sinhala, Tamil and English
- All citizens of Sri Lanka will be treated equally irrespective of ethnicity, religion, gender or sex
- Federally Sri Lanka will be secular
- Introduction of direct democracy; Switzerland is the only country in the world that offers this. It provides the citizens with an ability to challenge a law passed by the Federal/Canton Parliament
- Sri Lanka will follow a line of firm neutrality; this is very important to prevent Sri Lanka being affected by any fallout between our regional friends such as India, Pakistan, and China. It helped save Switzerland from being dragged into the World Wars and also prevented ethnic discomfort between the Swiss Germans and the Swiss French during the war periods when France and Germany where enemies.
- Sri Lanka will be split into three political levels; Federal, District and Divisional Secretariats.
The federal responsibilities will be the same as in Switzerland i.e. foreign, defence and security policy, financial matters and enacting legislation that applies throughout the whole country.
The executive powers will be exercised by the “Federal Council of Sri Lanka”, which will act as both the head of government and head of state. The legislative power is allocated to the two chambers of the “Federal Assembly of Sri Lanka”. The judiciary will remain independent of the executive and the legislature, with power being exercised by the “Federal Supreme Court of Sri Lanka” (similar to the current Supreme Court). Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte will be the seat of all federal authorities.
Federal Council of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s government will consist of nine members with each member coming from the nine ceremonial provinces (the provinces won’t have any power). The member to “represent” a province will come from the districts which form a province. For example, the Western Province is formed of three districts; Colombo District, Gampaha District, Kalutara District. Every four years the leader of these three districts will rotate around as the representative of the Western Province.
Each of the nine members will have equal rights. They will each act as a head of department (cabinet) in the federal administration, but like in Switzerland, all government decisions will be taken in a weekly conference either by consensus or by majority voting of the nine members. The following is a table of the departments which are fixed at nine (Note: the federal functions are not set in stone for each province i.e. the Central Province is not stuck forever with the “Department of Environment and Energy”).
Like in Switzerland, there will be no full time head of state. Rather the federal council will act collectively as the head of state. However, like in Switzerland, due to the national and international need for a specific individual to represent the country, the representational functions of a president will be taken by one of the members via a yearly rotation system e.g. the Central Province member will be president with the Eastern Province member as Vice President. The following year, the Eastern member will become president and the North Central member becoming Vice President etc.
The ‘president’ will be in charge of setting the agenda of the weekly conferences but will have no powers going above and beyond other members. They will also be in charge of addressing the people at national and international functions. However, like in Switzerland, during any foreign state visit, the foreign leader will be met by the government ‘in corpore’ i.e. by all the members.
Sri Lanka will have two tier assembly made up of the;
Council of districts (Upper house):
- Council to represent the 25 districts with elections every 4 years.
- Each district will send 2 members leading to a total of 50 members.
National council (Lower House):
- 200 members elected under a proportional election system. Elections occur every 4 years happening simultaneously with the elections for the Council of Districts.
- This will act similar to the current Sri Lankan parliament.
District and Divisional Secretariats
- Like the cantons, the districts will have far reaching powers and will decide themselves how to be run. However, all district laws must conform to the Federal Law.
- The districts will be further sub divided into the pre-existing divisional secretariats. These will have the same powers that their equivalent in Switzerland, the communes, has.