Off the Balconies and into the Square. Will last holdouts against granting women the vote reverse a 580-year tradition?


ON the last Sunday in April, the men of two tiny Swiss regions will meet for their annual gathering in the town square. By a show of hands they will vote on a new government, regional taxes, and other local policy issues.

The open-air assembly, known as the Landsgemeinde, is the colorful tradition which endears the two half-cantons of Appenzell to travel writers of the world - and to Soviet emigr'e Alexander Solzhenitsyn, former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and NATO Secretary-General Manfred W"oerner, all of whom have attended a Landsgemeinde and found the ceremony moving.

So what's missing from this picture?


While the menfolk are deciding policy this year, their mothers, sisters, and wives will be literally standing on the sidelines, leaning out of windows, or sitting on balconies that overlook the town square.

Since 1971, all Swiss women have had the right to vote on the federal level. In 1981 a constitutional amendment further assured them of equal rights. Except for Apenzell, women are now able to vote on the local level in all the 26 cantons and half-cantons. National legislation cannot overrule local laws in such matters.

This year, however, the men of Appenzell Outer Rhoden will have a chance to overturn the ban on women's voting. The pro-suffrage forces have high hopes for this election, but no one wants to predict victory. They are aware that one does not lightly overturn a 580-year-old tradition.

``It is an emotional issue rather than a rational one,'' says Hans Hoehener, Appenzell's minister of education, an an ardent campaigner for women's rights.

In 1987, the Appenzell government formed a commission to study just how women could be incorporated into the process. The panel had to answer a long list of objections from those who oppose the idea.

The most common complaint was that there was not enough room for the women in the town squares of Trogen and Hundwil, which host the assemblies in alternate years. If women were allowed to participate, the burghers would have to change venues or replace the outdoor gathering with impersonal ballot boxes. Opponents also pointed out that voting rights are conferred by possession of a sword, and, well, women don't have swords.

``Those who are against women's suffrage find all kinds of pretexts to oppose it,'' says Aline Auer, a member of the commission. ``But these are only excuses. We measured the town squares and found that in fact there is plenty of room for everyone - at least at the current rate of participation, which is about 30 percent. As for admission to the square, the women could be given voter-identification cards instead of swords.''

The biggest problem is sentimental. In an uncertain world, Appenzellers prefer to cling to tradition.

``You have to understand what a magnificent occasion the Landsgemeinde is,'' says Appenzell Chancellor Hans-Juerg Schaer.

On a nice day, thousands of citizens will come on foot from miles away as church bells toll.

``When everyone gathers and sings the Landsgemeinde hymn, it produces an incredible emotional impact,'' says Mr. Hoehener.

After the voting, which lasts only an hour, families go out to restaurants or for walks in the mountains. It is a day of festivities, and it happens only once a year. To Hoehener, however, this is no excuse for denying women a place in the polling.

``A tradition that is too rigid becomes a museum piece,'' he says. ``It must be able to adapt in order to survive. I would argue that giving women a vote will not kill the Landsgemeinde. On the contrary, it is the only way to preserve it.''

No one ventures to guess whether women will be enfranchised this year. According to the last public opinion poll on the subject, 57 percent of both men and women in Appenzell Outer Rhoden favored giving women the vote. That poll, however, was in 1986 - before the infamous ``Kopp affair.''

The first women ever to hold a ministerial position in the Swiss government, Elisabeth Kopp, was both minister of justice and of the police. Last year, she was found to have warned her financier husband about a pending investigation against his firm. On Dec. 12, she was forced to resign.

For the anti-women forces, Mrs. Kopp's downfall was precisely the excuse they needed to deny women a vote.

``They all shake their heads and say, `See what happens when you let women meddle in politics?''' says Swiss journalist Ren'e Brunner.

In the run-up to this year's Landsgemeinde, a committee of seven pro-women activists is collecting names on a petition to be published shortly in local newspapers. The all-male committee is encouraging signatories to get out the vote.

Appenzeller women, however, seem apathetic. They seem to regard the situation as an oddity more than a threat to their equality. Some say that their husbands represent their views adequately.

``Sure, I would like the right to vote, but we'll get it eventually,'' says Antonia Fuchs. ``We're not in a hurry.''

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