Swiss parliament: ruling by the sword

The face above the sober brown suit and tie was red and crumpled, as if from exposure to many Alpine winters, and in one roughened earlobe was a brass stud earring shaped like a cow. The hands looked as if they were more accustomed to wield an ax or hammer than a pen. Today they carry an embossed silver sword, the symbol of the possessor's right to vote in the open-air parliament of Appenzell.

Once a year, on the last weekend in April, all the men of Appenzell-Innerrhoden gather in the square here in the town of Appenzell to elect officials and to vote, by a showing of hands, on all matters relating to the canton. This crop-headed farmer, who looked as tough as an old oak root, is actually a spiritual descendant of ancient Greece, for the Landsgemeinde, as the parliament is called, is a rare example of democracy in its purest form.

As a relic of a system that was once prevalent throughout Switzerland, but now is possible in only a handful of the 22 cantons, the Landsgemeinde is dear to the Swiss. Elsewhere in the country, for logistical reasons, the system has had to give way to semidirect democracy. (Still, all parliamentary bills and decrees can be put to a referendum if they are of enough interest. Citizens may also propose constitutional amendments, which will then be voted on by their peers.)

The Landsgemeinde is a festive occasion for the town: yellow, red, and brown flags hang thick above the medieval picture-signs each store has above its low, recessed doorway; many of the flags show a vicious-looking bear with long red claws. Vendors set up tables in the narrow cobbled streets to sell special Landsgemeinde cookies (very hard anise-flavored gingerbread). All morning, open carriages had clopped slowly through the neighboring towns -- not as part of a parade, or for anyone's benefit -- just to bear dignitaries to this important event.

The swords, carried by many of the men, are expensive. Buty every man in Switzerland is in the Army, and Army-issued bayonets may be carried instead. The brass earrings many of the men wore varied considerably -- sometimes they were long and dangling, sometimes the style was a button or a loop. These indicate the group of the wearer, we were told.

The assembly lasted about four hours. Every man has the right to speak on every subject, so the length is unpredictable. The annual Landsgemeinde, we were told, is held here because there is no place else large enough to hold the 1,500 men who attend. One year, our guide told us, it rained, and the square was solid with black umbrellas. Wheneve a subject was called for the vote, however, the umbrellas had to be put down so the hands could be counted.

This year, the Landsgemeinde fell on a brisk clear day. There were several hundred tourists, mostly Swiss and German. They pressed up against the roped-off area in the center of the square. More people pressed tightly together at every window (some of which had been removed for greater viewing convenience). They were crammed onto every balcony and stood on the platform of the statue in the middle of the square. In the background were the white, fir-trimmed hills.

But the ace viewing spot is from the second floor of the restaurant of the Hotel Santis, overlooking the square. Get there early, as these seats are in demand, especially if it's raining. Another advantage: You are already in place to order lunch after it's over. May is the strawberry and asparagus season in Europe, and both are worth a pilgrimage across the Atlantic. The strawberries were what strawberries should be but frequently aren't. And the asparagus was something else again: fat white stalks, dripping in butter, tender from top to bottom.

If you can't make it to Appenzell for the parliament, it might be interesting to come to this farming area some Wednesday, the weekly market day. Often there is no exchange of merchandise on the spot, according to our guide. One farmer will simply say to another, "I have a cow at home -- 800 francs," they shake hands on the deal, and the purchaser will come by later to pick up the beast. Good quality and reliability are Swiss specialties. The expression "buying a pig in a poke" has little meaning here.

But that wonderful conservatism sometimes takes the form of a reluctance to change. For instance, there were no women among those rows of dark suits in the roped-off center area at the Landsgemeinde. Women have been allowed to participate in federal elections since 1971, and the canton of Glarus, which also has a Landsgemeinde, permits them to participate. But as yet women aren't allowed to take part in the Appenzell parliament nor in those of the other cantons with this form of government (Obwalden, Nidwalden, and Ausserrhoden). We had hoped that "our" Landsgemeinde would vote on this subject. But to do so would be to legislate itself out of existence: The town square is just not big enough to hold any more people.

The Landsgemeinden are held the last Sunday in April in Sarnen (Obwalden), Stans (Nidwalden), Appenzell (Innerrhoden), Trogen in even years, Hundwil in odd years (Ausserrhoden), and the first Sunday in May in Glarus.

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