The Valais – of all places – Shows a New Politics


The reputation of the Canton of Valais has never been one of a hotbed of radicalism. Long dominated by the Christian Democratic Party, it is known for its conservatism and Catholicism. (Crucifixes are still hung in many Valais classrooms in public schools and the Church-run school in St. Maurice has long been an educational cantonal leader.) One doesn’t learn about Karl Marx or Antonio Gramsci on the slopes of Crans Montana or Verbier nor at the Foire du Valais in Martigny.

To general surprise, Valais politics seems to be shifting. “For the Valais, the time for a great change has come,” said Jean Zermatten, already in 2006 when he began to lead a movement to revise the Canton’s 1907 Constitution. Revising a constitution is not radical in and of itself. What was radical was Zermatten’s proposal to assign the drafting to a constituent assembly outside of political parliamentarians and outside traditional political parties.
Last Sunday, a new group, Appel Citoyen (Citizen’s Call) was able to gain 16 seats out of 130 persons elected to write the Constitution, and won as many as 22% of the vote in and around Sion, the capital of Valais. The well-known Zermatten, former president of the cantonal court for minors and Chairman of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, spearheaded the 16 elected outsiders out of 646 candidates, showing a degree of creativity and fresher not evident in a canton long considered a bastion of tradition.
“Citizen’s Call has given a new wind and has, no doubt, seduced the voters tired of the traditional parties and political affairs within and outside the canton,” said Barbara Lanthemann, the President of the Valais Socialist Party. As Le Temps headlined: “Valais’ civil society has taken the constitutional assembly.”
What is so radical here is the rejection of party politics and the increased role of civil society.  “The political class must look again at its fundamentals and go above traditional party programs,” one observer noted. The Preamble of Charter of the United Nations begins with “We the People,” but that organization developed into a singular intergovernmental institution like so many others despite efforts by people like the international lawyer Richard Falk to initiate a People’s Assembly outside governments.
What is impressive about the recent Valais election is the success of the non-politicians. Within a short period of time, energized citizens were able to organize around a common issue – writing a new constitution. On a larger and different scale, the “Gilets jaunes of France” originally showed how civil society can organize and rally with little leadership and no clearly defined objective beyond fighting increased gas prices.
Writing a constitution can be done by apolitical actors. But writing is not governing. Non-political organizing around a specific theme remains outside current democratic political systems. Nonetheless, as we have witnessed in France, with Emmanuel Macron and his La République En Marche!, new political parties can emerge; traditional parties can decline or even disappear. (We will see how well Macron’s party does and lasts.) Democratic systems do not have the name of parties etched in stone, but they remain party oriented.
Modern technology is challenging traditional political systems of parties and creating different forms of legitimacy. Whether civil society movements have enough traction to become institutionalized – remember Occupy Wall Street or the gun control efforts of the young students in Florida – is not evident. What is evident is a growing disillusionment with traditional parties and the political class.
Amid the vineyards, Sion is dominated by the castles of Valère and Tourbillon that have stood since the 13th century. They remind everyone of the history of the city and the region. But below is the train station. In bird’s eye view of the castles are impressive new buildings going up for the EPFL and the HES-SO as well as a convention center.
Did I say that the reputation of the Valais was that it was never a hotbed of radicalism? Maybe the contrary is too strong, but there is definitely something moving there besides skiers flying down the slopes.

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