When I was invited to speak at a meeting a while ago about “my” president, I began by saying how honored I was to speak about Ueli Maurer, the current Swiss president. When the laughter died down, I tried to explain Donald Trump, my fellow New Yorker, as best I could. Now, sometime later, during the U.S. impeachment hearings, there are also serious questions being raised about what it means to be president in Switzerland. Ueli Maurer’s “autocratic world tour 2019” to Saudi Arabia, Russia and China (should we include his Oval Office meeting as well?) has made headlines. And there is even a debate in Geneva about a five-year term for the president of the Conseil d’Etat.
These are three situations in which the role of president is being questioned. What does it mean to be president in a democracy? There is a mythical story that George Washington turned down an offer to become king towards the end of the Revolutionary War. After all, hadn’t the colonies always been ruled by a monarch? Luckily, the original Constitution established a separation of powers. Each branch of the government has responsibilities with clearly demarcated checks and balances. That’s what makes the current Trump impeachment hearings so important; they are an effort to confirm the powers of Congress to oversee the actions of the Executive.
And Ueli Maurer? The Swiss presidency is a rotating position among the federal councillors as exists in most cantons. Mostly ceremonial, it allows the head of state to meet with other heads of state. No matter what department the councillor is responsible for, he or she is received at the highest level by other heads of state. And the president is free to visit wherever he or she chooses and is welcomed, autocratic country or not. During his one-year presidency, Maurer has decided to visit those countries he feels are most important for Switzerland, democratic or not.
The Geneva situation shows the limits and strengths of a rotating presidency. The recent 2012 changes in the Geneva Constitution increased the legislative period from four to five years as well as establishing the presidency for the entire five-year period, a radical change from the previous yearly rotation. Now the Conseil d’Etat has proposed a law amending the new Constitution to return to the original rotating presidency. The idea behind the proposal is that it is not in the Swiss spirit to have one member of the group dominate for five years, even if only ceremonially.
Do we want a powerful president or not? Pictures of President Emmanuel Macron of France strolling down the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles have elicited warnings of an imperial presidency. On the other hand, many bemoan the vacuum of leadership in the democratic world. Donald Trump or Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or the rest of the Democratic contenders? These are all politicians, hardly presidential.
Perhaps it is not the system of rotating presidencies in Switzerland or previously in Geneva or the confusion over separation of powers in the United States that is at fault for this lack of leadership. Perhaps the problem is we the people. Citizens want to be heard. We want our governments to be truly democratic. We want the people to be sovereign; we want to feel empowered.
And yet, we also want to be led. Not led like the children who followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin but led as responsible citizens. We want to be inspired by someone and that person’s vision. “Tear down that wall.” “Ask not what your country can do for you…” “I have a dream…” These are not just catch phrases like “Make America Great Again.” They are phrases that inspired; they are visions coming from leaders.
So while we citizens criticize leaders who have overstepped their bounds, and while we tinker with the limits of presidential authority, we should also keep in mind that we also want to be led. The people of Geneva will have the last word about their presidency in a probable vote to change the Constitution, unlike a probable Senate vote to remove President Trump from office. Now that’s real democracy; it shows how people can choose how they want to be led.