Switzerland’s Government and Politics

Switzerland’s Government and Politics Switzerland’s …

Switzerland’s Government and Politics

Switzerland’s Government and Politics


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:

  • federal
  • cantonal (based on 26 cantonal constitutions)
  • communal (in a few small cantons and in some 2500 small villages
    reunions of all citizens are held instead of cantonal and communal
    parliaments; local courts are usually common to several communities)

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

  • The National Council is Switzerland’s “house of
    representatives”. The 200 members are elected every four years
    according to a refined proportional election system, but since
    every canton forms a constituency and cantons have extremely different
    numbers of inhabitants, a few smaller cantons may only send one member
    to the national council, which results in majority elections for these.
  • The Council of States represents the cantons (like the U.S.
    senate). Full cantons send two members, half cantons one, giving a
    total of 46 members. The rules how to elect the members are made under
    cantonal legislation, so they may differ from canton to canton.
    A majority of cantons does elect their members of the
    Council of States every four years on the same day as the members
    of the National Council, however.
  • Both chambers discuss new laws separately. Sometimes they have
    to repeat a discussion if the other chamber has passed a different
    version of a law. Which chamber is discussing a new proposal first
    is not determined by the constitution but
  • Being member of parliament is not a full-time job in Switzerland
    (at least they are not paid accordingly …). Formally, parliament
    meets four times a year for several weeks. In between, each member
    has to read proposals for new laws individually and to attend one-day
    conferences of commissions.
  • Both chambers of parliament form several commissions – some to
    control the work of the administration, some to debate new laws in
    depth. Specialists in fields like health, military and many more
    are elected to represent their party in these commissions. All
    parties of minimal size (5 members of parliament) are represented
    at least in a few commissions and smaller parties may join to
    form a fraction giving them the right to work in commissions.

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

Department Head (Minister) President Party
Internal Affairs Alain Berset 2018 SP
Foreign Affairs Ignazio Cassis   FDP
Energy, Traffic and Environment Simonetta Sommaruga 2015 SP
Defense and Sports Viola Amherd   CVP
Justice Karin Keller-Sutter   FDP
Economy and Education Guy Parmelin   SVP
Finances Ueli Maurer 2013, 2019 SVP

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 www.admin.ch (official website of
Switzerland’s federal government and administration).

Direct Democracy: Referendum and Initiative

  • Frequent referendums on new or changed laws, budgets etc,

    – some of them mandatory

    – others “facultative” (only if 50,000 citizens demand for it)
  • Ordinary citizens may propose changes to the constitution
    if they can find a number of supporters (100,000 out of about
    3,500,000 voters).
    Parliament will discuss it,
    probably propose an alternative and afterwards all citizens may
    decide in a
    referendum whether to accept the initiative, the alternate proposal
    or stay without change

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

  • referendums will increase parties’ willingness to compromise
    (otherwise a defeated party will call for a referendum)
  • referendums favour big coalitions (shared power motivates compromise,
    exclusion from power motivates obstructive referendums)
  • referendums increase stability (as extreme laws will be blocked by referendum,
    parties are less inclined to radical changes in lawmaking and voters are
    less inclined to call for fundamental changes in elections)
  • The two chambers of parliament meet several times annually to sessions of
    several weeks and between them to preparing meetings of numerous commissions.
    Being member of parliament is not a full time job in Switzerland, contrary to most
    other countries today. This means, that Swiss members of parliament are closer
    to everyday life of their electorate.

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

Literature and links on Switzerland’s Political System:

  • www.admin.ch (official website of
    Switzerland’s federal government and administration)

  • www.parlament.ch (official website of
    Switzerland’s federal parliament)

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.

  • Social Democratic Party (SP).
    The classical «Labour Party» has more followers among intellectuals
    (mostly employees) than in the traditional «working class» today.

  • Free Democratic Party / Liberals (FDP).
    The party of entrepreneurs, managers, lawyers, physicians etc. is promoting
    de-regulation and low taxes like the Republicans in the USA or the
    Conservatives and the Liberals in the UK. Very open-minded with regard to
    individual freedom.

  • Christian Democratic Party (CVP) Based on a catholic
    electorate, traditionally coming from mostly rural areas in central Switzerland,
    Fribourg and Valais. This party has become more open-minded since the 1970’s
    but has lost considerably in strength due to the general European trend that
    religion is losing influence on society.

  • Swiss People’s Party (SVP) Populist-nationalist party,
    with a traditionally strong base among farmers and small business owners.
    Attracts a broad potential of frustrated globalization losers today.
    While the SVP claims «Swissness» all for itself, it is notorious
    for rude election campaigns damaging Switzerland’s reputation abroad.

  • The Greens Leftist environmentalists in the tradition of the
    1968 student revolts. While they share most convictions with the SP, the major
    difference is a much more critical point of view towards globalization
    and the European Union. They are sometimes also less inclined to support
    second best solutions for the environment and rather prefer ending up without
    any solution while the SP often prefers a compromise with the FDP and CVP.

  • Liberal Greens Like the FDP they are critical of
    a strong government, prefer less regulation and low taxes; but they see
    legislation in environmental issues both as a strategic necessity and
    an opportunity (while the FDP wourld prefer to let markets decide).

  • BDP (moderate SVP dissidents)

    When the parliament elected Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf instead of Christoph Blocher
    to the federal government following the 2007 elections due to his personal lack of
    cooperation and willingness to compromise (which is a basic necessity for
    parties taking part in Switzerland’s government, Blocher and his crew excluded
    Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf from the SVP. A rather small, moderate fraction of the SVP
    founded the BDP as a new conservative party. While not less conservative than
    the SVP, BDP members are more polite in style and more inclined to cooperate
    and compromise with other parties.

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

Switzerland’s Government and Politics

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