BORIS Theses

BORIS Theses
Bern Open Repository and Information System

Federal Reform and Intergovernmental Relations in Switzerland. An Analysis of Intercantonal Agreements and Parliamentary Scrutiny in the Wake of the NFA

Arens, Alexander Urs (2020). Federal Reform and Intergovernmental Relations in Switzerland. An Analysis of Intercantonal Agreements and Parliamentary Scrutiny in the Wake of the NFA. (Thesis). Universität Bern, Bern

20arens_a.pdf - Thesis
Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Download (3MB) | Preview


As a normative principle, federalism describes “the method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent” (Wheare 1963: 10). The federal principle thus prescribes subnational self-rule on matters of local and regional scope and shared rule of the subnational units and the federal government on matters that transcend regional capabilities and jurisdiction (Elazar 1987). To not confuse federalism with other means and ways to territorially distribute power, e.g. decentralization, the vertical division and diffusion of jurisdiction needs to be constitutionally enshrined and cannot be unilaterally altered (Hueglin 2013). The constitutional safeguard is the core of federations that are the empirical embodiments of the normative principle of subnational autonomy on the one hand and federally shared jurisdiction on the other. Hence, federations are states that possess a federal constitution, i.e. a written agreement enshrining the basic political order of a state (who does what), that necessitates the approval of all constitutive parts, i.e. the federal government and the subnational units (Watts 2008: 8–9). Since “federalism is some one or several varieties of political philosophy or ideology and […] federation […] some type of political institution” (King 1982: 75), the constitution and its political institutions are only the formal framework within which actors of different levels of government work. Thus, federalism does not only encompass structure (polities) but also processes and culture (politics). The latter describes the political actors’ behavior according to the logic of compromise and accommodation but also a commitment of the people as a whole towards territorial power sharing and the aforementioned logic of “thinking federal” (Elazar 1987: 192–197; see also Duchacek 1970). Especially, processes and practices within and beyond the federal frame stand out. One procedural characteristic in multi-tiered, federal systems are intergovernmental relations (IGR) that describe “ways and means of operationalizing a system of government” (Elazar 1987: 16). In its broadest terms, IGR are formal and informal interactions of government units between and within layers of government (Poirier and Saunders 2015a). Intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) and intergovernmental councils (IGCs), the two central embodiments of IGR, come into play when self-rule or shared rule is granted but cannot be sufficiently or satisfactorily fulfilled (for a general introduction see Poirier et al. 2015; for an encompassing discussion of IGCs see Bolleyer 2009 and Behnke and Mueller 2017; for an introduction to IGAs see country specific literature). The dissertation project “Federal Reform and Intergovernmental Relations in Switzerland. An Analysis of Intercantonal Agreements and Parliamentary Scrutiny in the Wake of the NFA” starts from the conceptual dualism of federalism and IGR. It aims at answering crucial questions on the most recent developments in the Swiss federal system with respect to horizontal IGAs and the role of subnational legislatures when such IGAs are at stake. The basic and overall research question of the dissertation is directly derived from the underlying research project1 on “[t]he hidden political effects of the Swiss federal reform: The NFA and the changing power relations in the Swiss cantons”: To what extent has the NFA affected the cantons and their political systems? The research strategy is twofold and so is the research question further split in two: A first preparatory part approaches the research objects at hand and a second part then aims at answering the basic research question. First, the dissertation asks for the significance of horizontal IGAs between the Swiss cantons and for the factors that explain their occurrence: (I) What is the state of intercantonal cooperation by means of IGAs and what explains the intensity of their use? While literature in the international (Parker 2015) and the Swiss context (Bochsler and Sciarini 2006) assign crucial importance to IGAs, barely anything is known about their empirical significance as well as the factors that drive it. Two exceptions stand out: the investigations by Frenkel and Blaser (1981) and Bochsler (2009) address both questions – state and explanatory factors of IGAs – within the Swiss federal system. However, research on the topic resides in the shadow. Answering research question (I) adds another point in time to the two existing ones – Frenkel and Blaser (1981) analyze IGAs as of 1980 and Bochsler (2009) as of 2005. The subsequent analysis checks whether the state of horizontal IGAs has changed and whether the explanatory factors tested are still of significance. Both is by no means certain: The most recent and encompassing federal reform, the Neugestaltung des Finanzausgleichs und der Aufgabenteilung zwischen Bund und Kantonen (NFA), took force on 1 January 2008 and, among others, strengthened intercantonal cooperation especially with reference to the conclusion of IGAs providing public goods and services that require the sharing of costs and burdens. Art. 48a para. 1 lit. a.–i. Cst prescribes the use of IGAs in certain policy areas, e.g. school and higher education, cultural infrastructure but also waste management and waste water treatment. The further institutionalization of IGAs by its strong codification in the federal constitution and the enshrined federal enforcement mechanisms were widely expected to spur intercantonal cooperation (see Bochsler and Sciarini 2006: 36). After around ten years since the NFA has taken force, the subsequent analysis investigates whether this expectation was right and whether the logic behind the conclusion of IGAs has changed or remained the same. Hence, it provides for the better understanding of state and occurrence of IGAs in general. Furthermore, it puts a special focus on such addressed by the NFA in particular. First, the descriptive analysis shows that there is no clear answer to the question on the development of IGAs: While the mere number of IGAs has not significantly changed of late but consolidated on a high level, other (fiscal) indicators point towards enhanced intercantonal cooperation. With respect to the explanatory model, applying cross-sectional regression analysis as well as the Quadratic Assignment Procedure (QAP) on dyadic data of intercantonal contracting, the subsequent analysis replicates but also expands the analysis of Bochsler (2009). One of the main findings is that intercantonal cooperation by IGAs mainly takes place within functional, geographically demarcated areas. Mobility plays a crucial role and is one of the main predictors of the intensity of horizontal contractual cooperation. To abstract from the Swiss case, a comparative analysis of the German Bundesländer and the U.S. states is conducted. The crucial question here is whether it exists a similar state and a common logic behind IGAs in other federations as well or whether country specific differences occur. The second part of the dissertation project deals with specific political effects of the NFA, namely effects on the cantonal parliaments as one of the core political institutions on the subnational level (Vatter 2002). While the first part approaches the topic by clarifying state and logic behind IGAs to assess its overall significance for the cantons, the second part directly addresses the basic research question on the political effects of the NFA on power relations within the cantons: (II) How do cantonal parliamentary rights of participation and scrutiny in intercantonal affairs have developed over time and what explains this development? Research on the Swiss cantons provides not only specific descriptive knowledge on singular cases (see Iff et al. 2010 for the canton of Berne and Schwarz et al. 2015 for the canton of Uri) but also on all cantons (Strebel 2014). However, both approaches lack a quantitative comparative and explanatory perspective. Towards answering question (II), it is hypothesized that the NFA and the accompanying public debates and executing national legislation2 triggered change in cantonal parliamentary rights of participation and scrutiny. As already pointed out, the reform heightened the expectation of more executive-driven intercantonal cooperation. Additionally, the federal government settled minimal standards for the conclusion of IGAs that lie within Art. 48a para. 1 lit. a.–i. Cst. Strebel (2014: 231ff.) discusses reforms on the cantonal level towards better parliamentary participation and scrutiny against the background of the NFA. However, a quantitative comparative analysis of the specific factors explaining institutional change stands out: Did the NFA trigger parliamentary reforms in the cantons and what role did other factors play, e.g. the institutional context and the parliaments itself as well as partisan actors within the cantonal arenas? The analysis builds on approaches testing similar effects in other contexts, e.g. the effects of increased activity of state officials on the European level on more parliamentary scrutiny of national governments ‘at home’ (Raunio and Hix 2000, O’Brennan and Raunio 2007, Winzen 2012, Auel et al. 2015). Methodically, the investigation in this second part makes use of time-series analysis on panel data to isolate the factors explaining institutional change. Besides, an in-depth discussion on a typical case (Lieberman 2005) gives further insights on the workings of the explanatory mechanisms. The dissertation closes by discussing the major implications that can be drawn from the analyses. While the first analysis addressed a trend within federations, i.e. increasing horizontal interactions, the second investigated a major challenge, i.e. efficiency versus democratic accountability (Poirier and Saunders 2015b). The concluding discussion links the two parts of the dissertation and hypothesizes the following: it was the very development towards enhanced parliamentary participation (second analysis) that has hampered the intensity of intercantonal contracting most recently (first analysis). Furthermore, the capability of cantonal political systems is critically discussed. 1 See the abstract of the research project The hidden political effects of the Swiss federal reform: The NFA and the changing power relations in the Swiss cantons (SNSF No. 159343;, accessed 31 March 2020). 2 i.e. the Bundesgesetz über den Finanz- und Lastenausgleich (FiLaG), in force since 1 April 2005, and the Rahmenvereinbarung über die interkantonale Zusammenarbeit mit Lastenausgleich (IRV), passed for ratification on 24 June 2005.

Item Type: Thesis
Dissertation Type: Single
Date of Defense: 17 September 2020
Subjects: 300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 320 Political science
Institute / Center: 03 Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences > Social Sciences > Institute of Political Science
Depositing User: Hammer Igor
Date Deposited: 01 Feb 2021 10:17
Last Modified: 17 Sep 2021 00:30

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item