Direct democracy for the Russian empire: the Landsgemeinde 1872

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The ring of the Landsgemeinde 2017 on Saturday evening

Yesterday, I attended the Landsgemeinde that is held every year, on the first Sunday of May in Glarus, Switzerland. Every year, the people of the Canton Glarus gathers in a ring for the Landsgemeinde and vote on the issues of the canton. This year, the most contentious issues were the ban of burkas and the new law on zone planning. The burka ban – porposed by the UDC-SVP – was rejected by a relatively robust majority after a long debate where tollerance, freedom, feminism and safety were invoked by all sides. In May 1872, when N. I. Sieber attended the Landsgemeinde in Glarus, the most contentious topic was the reform of the federal constitution of Switzerland.

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Remanants of the 19th century textile industry

The total reform of the Swiss constitution that was proposed in 1872 (and rejected by most cantons) was intend to extend social rights and strengthen the federalist principle. Glarus approved the proposed modifications with 74% of the votes of the assembly, but the bill failed to gain the support of a majority of cantons, because the most conservative cantons were against it. A few years later, Glarus also approved an advanced social legislation, limiting the work hours for adults. The town was home to important factories that employed about a third of the population of the canton and the Landsgemeinde enabled factory workers to push their demands further. Sieber came to Glarus with a group of students of the University of Zürich led by professor Karl Böhmert, who taught a course on the Social Question. Böhmert and his students where especially interested in the  social aspect of the debate that took place at the Landsgemeinde of 1872.

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The Landsgemeinde in 1920 (srf.ch)

Sieber described the assembly in a report published in the Herald of the University of Kiev. Certain symbols remained unchanged since Sieber’s time. He mentions for instance the sword that the Landsamman, the head of the government of Glarus, still has to carry during the Landsgemeinde. But many changes intervened over the past 150 years.  Sieber described a very loud assembly. He reported that only few citizens spoke against the reform bill, and those who did were ridiculed and laughed at. An old man, in particular, who claimed there was no need to change institutions that had worked so well for over 500 years, was interrupted by the Landamman. Yesterday I was impressed instead by the calm and quiet crowd that attended the Landsgemeinde 2017: nobody applauded, nobody abused the speakers, it was an orderly, tollerant, gathering.

For Sieber, the Landsgemeinde and the Swiss federalist system more in general were a source of inspiration in the fight against the Czar’s centralist absolutism. And I think they still remain a valuable source of inspiration for other modern democracies today.

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