The Art of Consensus in Switzerland
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One of the most prominent aspects of Swiss culture is its incessant attempts to achieve consensus. This modus vivendi is determined by the extremely heterogeneous population: 26 cantons, 4 national languages, 2 major religions, a clear division between urban and rural areas—all doubled by the distinction between the Alps and the plains. So many differences which miraculously do not become destabilizing factors! On the contrary, everyone is aware of the respect due to others as well as their opinions. At the political level, the decision-making process revolves around the need to consider all of the concerns of the respective groups.

The people most affected by a decision are always consulted beforehand. The numerous associations and televised Sunday morning debates, which invite representatives from all walks of life, are considered fundamental institutions as they contribute to the political decision-making process. Rather than letting ideas take their own course, an attempt is made to find a common position that could accommodate the masses. Everyone is, therefore, forced to make certain compromises. These negotiations take time, often a lot of time. After all, it is said that the Swiss are slow. But when the decision has been taken, it encounters no obstacles once it has been set in motion. In fact, these discussions allow for a solution perfectly adapted to the reality of the problem to be reached. As the groups who would be mainly affected by the decision participate in the negotiations, they are convinced that the solution arrived at is the most reasonable. And the minority whose rights may have been infringed, is, in most cases, awarded compensation.

The consecration of this culture of consensus can be found in the collegial form of executive and federal power and in most of the cantonal governments. A group of 7 “counselors” make up the federal government. Each member of the “college” defends his or her point of view behind closed doors. Then discussions are held to determine a common or at least a majority opinion. Once a decision has been made all the members of the college are required to defend it publicly regardless of their initial opinion. They become little more than spokespeople for the government as a whole. Politicians who wish to distance themselves from the collective decision taken with their colleagues will immediately become pariahs, a fact that goes to show just how important this process is to the peace of this very heterogeneous country. Therefore, do not be surprised if it takes a long time to decide on business matters.

The Swiss will first try to find out the opinions of those concerned. They will then try to rally the interest of the majority around a common project, as this has proven to be the only viable long-term solution. It would be very surprising if a decision were made based on a brainstorming session or against the will of the majority. Direct confrontations are completely counter-productive, not to mention socially unacceptable in Switzerland. If you want your ideas to be incorporated into the final product, it is better to ensure a dominating position by taking an active role in the project development by contributing constructively in the discussions. Trying to use blackmail or pressure after the fact will have no effect at all. As the decision reached is the fruit of a collective work, everyone involved will unite to save their laborious equilibrium.

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