Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage (Switzerland)

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Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage
Location: Switzerland
Switzerland map.png
Author: Lucy Koechlin
Affiliation: Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Basel, Switzerland

Original text: Lucy Koechlin, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Basel, Switzerland

Vetterliwirtschaft is a widespread expression denoting mutual favours or preferential treatment in German-speaking communities in Switzerland. It derives from the German term Vetternwirtschaft, which literally translates as the 'cousins' economy'. Swiss-German dialects exclusively use the diminutive form Vetterliwirtschaft (i.e. signified by the suffix -li, which makes the literal meaning akin to 'little cousins' economy'). Like nepotism, Vetterliwirtschaft implies the favouring of friends or family by those in a position of power. Everyone knows what is meant: ‘back-scratching’ exchanges of favours between colleagues in politics and business.

In the French-speaking parts of Switzerland, the equivalent term copinage is used, from the French copain, meaning 'buddy' or 'mate'. Although copinage is usually translated as 'cronyism', the meaning of copinage and Vetterliwirtschaft strongly reflects the social, political and economic idiosyncrasies of Switzerland. Switzerland is a small country, which prides itself in its egalitarian and citizen-based political system. Historically, Switzerland came into existence through a growing coalition of communities, as exemplified by the Swiss national folk hero Wilhelm Tell. The founding legend, in which Tell assassinated a brutal Habsburg ruler with his crossbow, sparking rebellion and the eventual independence of the Old Swiss Confederacy, represents the resistance of oppressed Swiss communities against the occupying force of the counts of Habsburg. The Old Swiss Confederacy was based on a coalition (Eidgenossenschaft, literally: an 'oath-fellowship') of communities from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden in what is now central Switzerland, with the Federal Charter of 1291 regarded as its founding document. In subsequent centuries, more so-called cantons and cities joined the confederation (a loose union of federal states), leading to the establishment of modern Switzerland on the basis of a federal constitution in 1848. The history of Switzerland is embodied in its official name, the 'Swiss Confederation'[1].

This history has translated into a strong bottom-up democracy, where the smallest political unit is the community, which to this day is vested with real political power. The centrality of the idea of the community as the core unit of society is reflected in the country’s executive body. Switzerland’s executive is headed not by an individual (such as a president or prime minister), but rather a collective body, the Federal Council, which acts as both head of state and head of government. Tellingly, the seven-member Federal Council, elected by Parliament, forms a multi-party body representing the different regions and languages of Switzerland[1][2][3].

Thus, the community as a political institution and as a frame of reference for political identity plays a key role in Swiss culture. It also has economic implications: as a result of the political authority vested in communities, business and politics are closely intertwined on a local level. Many people running a small business, such as an electrician or a small construction company, will also have some local political position, or have had one at some time. This is where Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage comes into play: a local electrician may be awarded the contract to rewire a municipality's public buildings without a public tender or clear criteria; or a local farmer may have a 'gentleman's agreement' with the village council to maintain the school grounds or clear the roads from snow in winter. However, Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage also takes on more obviously corrupt forms, especially in procurement and construction; typical examples include the brother-in-law of a local politician getting a contract to build a new school, or the re-zoning of land so that an influential member of the community can build a house, or a commercially lucrative hotel or ski-lift[4]. However, although all these decisions pass through a village or municipal council, it is striking that the community routinely turns a blind eye to these informal practices. This is even true of cases where other members of the community are being excluded from such deals.

One reason for the widespread societal acceptance of Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage may lie in the so-called 'consensus-democracy'[3][1] that characterises Switzerland. The Swiss loathe being confrontational – issues are solved by consensus, while conflict is frowned upon. This deep-seated suspicion of individuals who go ‘against the grain’ remains highly topical, illustrated by the heated debates surrounding the introduction of an (ironically toothless) whistleblower law in Switzerland[5][6][7].

Furthermore, the nature of Swiss nepotism differs from 'old boy networks', which usually serve to entrench the economic and political privileges of the upper classes. Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage is more democratic and inclusive; it is an everyday occurrence on the local level, and is not only tolerated but viewed with some fondness by many Swiss. The political history, the smallness of the country, and not least the high density of all sorts of associations, mean that the Swiss know each other very well on a local level. Politics is very accessible, and social capital – i.e. horizontal ties between community members characterised by high levels of trust and reciprocity – is high[8]. Arguably, Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage contributes to the density of social capital by fostering exchange networks that are embedded in a community.

Switzerland may be highly democratic, participative and egalitarian compared with many other societies, but Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage can also be observed in the higher echelons of society. Especially since World War II, elite networks mutually reinforced their ties and opportunities by occupying key positions in politics, business and the army (which to this day is a militia army based on conscription of all adult males). For decades, these 'higher' forms of Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage enjoyed virtual immunity from public critique. This changed in the late 1990s, when a series of scandals shook the famously stable country. The most spectacular incident was the cessation of flight operations of the renowned Swiss airline Swissair on 2 October 2001. Due to the company’s inability to make payment to creditors on its large debt, fuel suppliers refused to fuel the waiting aircrafts, grounding thousands of passengers around the world. The incident sent shockwaves through Swiss society as the Swiss held great pride in Swissair, seeing it as a national treasure and the epitome of Swiss stability and quality. Swissair's previously inconceivable collapse was a result of seriously misguided management strategies and regulatory failure. In particular, it brought to light what the media has called the ‘inbreeding’ of top management: the systematic 'recycling' of a handful of board members between several large Swiss companies, some of whom also acted as members of parliament[9][10]. For the first time, this type of Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage within the political establishment was seen to be deeply problematic, and has since led to a far more critical attitude towards such practices.

The new millennium has seen significant changes in terms of access to politics and business. Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage among political and economic elites has become the exception due to a transformed political and social landscape, tightened regulatory frameworks and highly internationalised boards of large companies[11][12][13]. Yet although this may hold particularly true on a national level, on a local level the many forms of Vetterliwirtschaft/copinage remain more tenacious.

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kreis, G. (ed.). 2014. Die Geschichte der Schweiz. Basel: Schwabe Verlag
  2. Vatter, A. 2014. Das politische System der Schweiz. Baden-Baden: Nomos
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kriesi, Hp. 2008. The Politics of Switzerland: Continuity and Change in a Consensus Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  4. Queloz, N., Borghi. M. and Cesoni, M-L. 2000. Processus de corruption en Suisse. Basel: Helbing und Lichtenhahn
  5. Jürgensen, N. 2015. ‘Korruptionsstrafrecht: Schutz für Vetterliwirtschaft’, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 June, http://www.nzz.ch/schweiz/schutz-fuer-vetterliwirtschaft-1.18554626
  6. Carranza, C. J. 2014. Whistleblowing: Perspectives en droit suisse. Genève: Schulthess
  7. The Economist. 2015. ‘Whistleblowing in Switzerland: Rough Terrain’, The Economist, 5 December, http://www.economist.com/news/business/21679456-two-court-cases-illustrate- struggles-employees-who-allege-wrongdoing-rough-terrain
  8. Freitag, M. 2014. Das sozial Kapital der Schweiz. Zürich: Neue Zürcher Zeitung
  9. Lüchinger, R., Haemmerli, Th. and Willmann. B., Swissair – Mythos und Grounding. Zürich: Scalo Verlag
  10. Stämpfli, R. 2003. ‘Die organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit: die Schweiz hat gewählt’, Rote Revue: Zeitschrift für Politik, Wirtschaft und Kultur, 81(4): 25-31
  11. Aiolfi, S. 2015. ‘Die Globalisierung der Vetterliwirtschaft’, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 16 July, http://www.nzz.ch/wirtschaft/unternehmen/die-globalisierung-der-vetterliwirtschaft- 1.18580564
  12. Stock, O. 2007. ‘Schluss mit der "Schweiz AG": Das Ende der Vetterli-Wirtschaft’, Handelsblatt, 22 June, http://www.handelsblatt.com/unternehmen/industrie/schluss-mit-der- schweiz-ag-das-ende-der-vetterli-wirtschaft/v_detail_tab_print/2825594.html
  13. Jürgensen, N. 2015. ‘Korruptionsstrafrecht: Schutz für Vetterliwirtschaft’, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 June, http://www.nzz.ch/schweiz/schutz-fuer-vetterliwirtschaft-1.18554626