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Political System and Government

Switzerland's Constitution and Federalism

Switzerland has a long republican tradition, its modern democratic constitution dates back to 1848 only, however, and was put into effect after a short civil war in 1847 leaving a conservative minority in a position of losers for decades. The constitution was totally revised in 1874 and is amended organically from time to time since. The 1999 total revision did not change anything of importance in substance, the sole purpose was to establish a modern and more readable structure and language (there have been more substancial changes in small revisions of single items in the last five years than between the "old" constitution as of 1998 and the "totally revised" constitution).

The federal constitution defines Switzerland as a federal state composed of 26 cantons (until 1976: 25 cantons) with far reaching autonomy. For historical reasons, six of the 26 cantons count as half-cantons (created by splitting three originally united cantons in two autonomous halves each), so the total number of 23 cantons given in some other sources is also correct in a way. Apart from voting arithmetics in referendums and in the small chamber of parliament, the half-cantons have exactly the same status as full cantons, however.

Switzerland's government, parliament and courts are organized on three levels:

The federal constitution in principle reserves the areas of foreign relations, the army, customs examinations and tariffs, value added taxes and the legislation on currency, measure and weight, railways and communications to the confederation. On the other hand only the cantons (and some major cities) do have armed police forces, run hospitals and universities (with the exeption of two federal institutes of technology). Legislation on public schools is made by the cantons, resulting in 26 different education systems, but the public schools are actually run by the communes, much like many other public services (like water supply and garbage collection). The confederation, the cantons and the communes do collect income taxes to finances their affairs.

When it comes to the details, everything is just a little bit more complex in Switzerland's political system, however, because in almost any field of state activity federal legislation does try to establish a minimal amount of national standard on one side while leaving a respectable amount of self-determination to cantons and communes on the other side. A majority of the electorate does reaffirm this basic principle of Swiss politics over and over again - by rejecting centralistic laws and accepting federalistic laws in referendums.

While Switzerland's electorate has more rights of participation than in any other country and makes extensive use of them, women's right to vote was introduced relatively late in Switzerland: In 1959 a first canton introduced it on cantonal and (within its territory) on communal level on the very day a 67% majority of the national male electorate rejected the introduction on the national level. Only in 1971, women got the right to vote on national level and the last canton was forced by the federal court to introduce it on cantonal and communal level as late as 1990 (referring to a 1981 amendment of the federal constitution that explicitly grants equal rights to men and women).
> See also: Detailed chronology of women's right to vote in Switzerland

Switzerland's Federal Two-Chamber Parliament

Federal Government and Administration

Switzerland's federal government is called Bundesrat (Conseil Fédéral, Consiglio Federale) [Federal Council]. Please note that the official German term Bundesrat is unfortunately used in Germany and Austria with a completely different meaning for the small chamber of their parliaments; therefore you can't trust your German-English dictionary giving the translation Upper House (of parliament).

Switzerland's government is a team consisting of seven members with equal rights. Each member of the government acts as head of a department of the federal administration, but all major government decisions are taken in weekly government conferences either by consensus or by majority voting of all seven members. The members of Switzerland's federal goverment are usually (re-)elected every four years in December after the parliamentary elections by both chambers of the federal parliament meeting together as the Federal Assembly. There is no legal limit to the total term of office, some federal councillors have been in office for over 20 years.

Departments and Heads of Switzerland's Administration

DepartmentHead (Minister)President Party
Internal Affairs Alain Berset2018SP
Foreign Affairs Ignazio Cassis FDP
Energy, Traffic and Environment Simonetta Sommaruga2015SP
Defense and Sports Viola Amherd CVP
Justice Karin Keller-Sutter FDP
Economy and Education Guy Parmelin SVP
Finances Ueli Maurer2013, 2019SVP

On December, 10th, 2007 the Swiss parliament decided not to reelect Christoph Blocher as a member of government for another term of four years. Instead, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, a more moderate member of his right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) was elected. This came not as a big surprise for the Swiss population after a dirty election campaign in autumn that Blocher had designed to go just to limit tolerable under Switzerland's law against racism. Blocher's party won a few percent in the elections and is now backed by about one third of the electorate, but the major effect of these elections is a polarization in Switzerland's politics that is quite contrary to the traditional Swiss value of compromise. Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and SVP members from her canton were excluded from the SVP, they and other moderate SVP members founded a new party named Bürgerlich Demokratische Partei (BDP).

Switzerland's President

Switzerland does not have a full-time president; the representational functions of a president are taken over by one (or all) of the government members. Every year another member of the government team is elected federal president in turn so that every government member assumes this role once in seven years. The president is primus inter pares [first among equals] with very limited special powers: he/she sets the agenda of the weekly conferences and leads the discussion, addresses the population on 1st of January, 1st of August (National Holiday) and similar occasions and represents Switzerland on some international conferences. Often the government is represented by one or two other members, however, depending on the focus. Official foreign guests are usually welcomed by the government in corpore (all members).

In 2010 Switzerland's president was Doris Leuthard (now retired), in 2011 Micheline Calmy-Rey (now retired), in 2012 Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (now retired), in 2013 Ueli Maurer, in 2014 Didier Burkhalter (now retired), in 2015 Simonetta Sommaruga in 2016 Johann Schneider-Ammann (now retired) in 2017 Doris Leuthard (now retired), in 2018 Alain Berset, in 2019 Ueli Maurer.

For updated information see (official website of Switzerland's federal government and administration).

Direct Democracy: Referendum and Initiative

While the federal system can be found in many other countries like the U.S.A., Germany, Austria etc., and separation of powers (government, parliament, courts) are common to all democracies (or at least should be), referendums are rare in most other countries. In Switzerland's long tradtion of Direct Democracy, frequent referendums do have a stabilizing influence on parliament and government.

Cantonal Constitutions and Administrations

The cantons [member states of the Swiss confederations] are free to organize themselves as long as they do respect each other, the federal constitution and laws and the minorities. All cantons do have their own constitutions, their own governments (usually five members elected by the population) and most of them do have (unicameral) cantonal parliaments.

Given the massive differences in size (smallest canton: 37.2 km², but with a population density of 5866 persons per km², largest canton 7105.9 km² with a population density of only 23 persons per km²) as well as in population (smallest canton: 13,500 inhabitants, biggest canton: 1,126,500 inhabitants) one cannot expect that the same type of organisation fits all. While members of cantonal governments act as heads of big administrative units in large cantons their colleagues in small cantons do have a part-time job only.

Direct Democracy was invented on cantonal grounds and gives even more participation rights to the population than on federal level. For example federal budgets are not subject to referendums, but communal budgets are even subject to mandatory referendums.

Since many fields of modern state activity are left to the cantons by the federal constitution but nevertheless need some standardisation in a time of increased mobility with about one fifth of the populatin working in one canton and dwelling in another canton, the cantonal governments meet to negotiate multi-cantonal agreements. The resulting system must appear to be rather strange to foreigners, but though it is undoubtedly very complicated it does work astonishingly well and even more perfectly than in many other industrialised countries (Swiss people are known to be perfectionists).

Literature and links on Switzerland's Political System:

Switzerland's major seven political parties

Short party profiles and website links:
Please note that these websites were designed for "internal" Swiss use, therefore you will find German, French and Italian language articles there.

There are some more parties in Switzerland, but they have no significant influence neither on federal nor on cantonal level.

Switzerland from A to Z
Short quotations allowed but with precise declaration of origin (Link).
Reproduction of substantial parts and pictures in printed or electronic form only with explicit written consent by the editor.