It is often said that Switzerland has 26 cantons. However, technically it has 20 full and 6 half cantons. Basel-City is one of Switzerland’s half cantons. This means it only gets one seat in the Council of States, Switzerland’s federal upper house, compared to the two each full canton gets. Some cantonal politicians in Basel-City want another seat in the Council of States and presented this idea to their canton’s parliament, reports SRF.
Half cantons were born from the historical division of full cantons. The other estranged half-canton pairs are Nidwalden-Obwalden and Appenzell Innerrhoden-Appenzell Ausserrhoden.
In Basel-City, the initiative to upgrade to a full canton is the work of the Liberal Green Party. It argues that the (half) canton is insufficiently represented in Bern given its relatively large population – around 190,000 people live there. This week, the idea was put to members of the canton’s parliament and it passed by 53 to 32 votes with 10 abstentions.
The move highlights a perennial political discussion in Switzerland. The upper house, which contains two seats for every full canton, gives oversized political clout to full rural cantons with small populations and leaves more populated half cantons underrepresented. The rural canton of Uri, with a population of around 50,000, gets two seats, while the urban half canton of Basel-City, with around 190,000 residents, gets only one.
And while the half cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden (formerly Appenzell) were born from religious division, and the reasons behind the Nidwalden-Obwalden (formerly Unterwalden) division are largely lost to history, the two Basels were born from the discontent of an underrepresented rural population. In 1830, rural Baselers demanded equal rights between city and countryside and representation in parliament in proportion to their numbers. This led to warring and the eventual division of the canton in 1833.
Some argue giving Basel-City another seat would upset the status quo and aggravate political divisions between rural and city dwellers. One counter proposal to maintain the current rural/city balance is to also upgrade the other five half cantons, which are all rural and all have relatively small populations. As it happens, Basel-Landschaft is also discussing a bid for another Council of States seat and an upgrade to full canton status.
The response from Bern has been negative. The Federal Council is opposed to the idea. Perhaps it sees a can of political worms it would prefer unopened. After all, Zurich, with 1.5 million residents, might start to wonder why it only gets two seats like the much less populous Basel-City.
SRF article (in German)