When the Swiss elect a new Federal Assembly this Sunday, they will be voting for the cheapest parliament in industrialized Europe. Switzerland, regularly listed as the richest industrialized nation on a per capita basis, holds that this wealth depends as much on saving a franc as making one.
Annually Swiss taxpayers expend a modest $10 million for their two-house parliament. A recent comparison with other European legislatures shows that, on a per capita basis, Switzerland pays less than one-third as much for its parliament as do France and Belgium, less than 40 percent as much as Austria and Denmark, 37 percent less than West Germany, 29 percent less than the Netherlands , 5 percent less than Britain.
How does Switzerland manage its legislature on the cheap?
Parliamentarians are expected to hold onto their jobs outside. A Swiss legislator wears his political hat for an average six months a year. The rest of the time the lawmaker is farmer, teacher, university professor, executive, housewife, lawyer, or trade union official. Yearly pay for legislators ranges from $17,000 to $24,000.
Another reason the legislative budget is low is that Swiss members of parliament have fewer far staff aides than other European parliamentarians. Whereas 43 permanent aides attend 246 Swiss parliamentarians, there are 201 officials for 241 members in Austria, 1,671 for 565 members in West Germany, 1, 961 for 807 members in France, 1,115 for 1,819 members in Britain.
Members have no individual staff and no office in the capital. During the session they may write a speech or handle paperwork in a small cubicle in a communal room. Often a secretary back at the office helps out with the boss's parliamentary chores. No one objects to the firm bearing the cost.
''Our system keeps us close to the grass roots,'' says Elisabeth Blunschy, an MP since 1971, when women gained the right to sit in parliament. She uses a two-hour-plus train ride from Schwyz to Bern to do homework.