Switzerland was not always a nation-state in the modern sense, but a loose alliance of autonomous cantons that came together under a federal constitution in 1848.
The constitution made the country into a federal state. There was now a central authority to counterbalance the power of the cantons. Some areas, such as foreign policy, were the reserve of the central government.
An official guide to how Switzerland is governed can be downloaded at the Federal Chancellery.
Switzerland's government has seven members. Each year, a different member becomes president. This position is actually no more than that of a chairperson, and the president also runs his or her own ministry.
Typically the four main parties are represented in the government. For an official guide to the federal government, see this page of the Swiss Federal Council, or cabinet.
Parliament consists of two chambers – the House of Representatives, representing the Swiss people, and the Senate, representing the cantons.
The 200 seats in the House of Representatives are assigned to the cantons in proportion to their population. The Senate has 46 members: two for each canton, and one for each of the half-cantons. There is no “upper” and “lower” house; neither chamber has precedence.
The House and Senate approve every federal law and supervise the work of the government. Most of the House is elected by proportional representation, the Senate by majority vote.
Elections to the House of Representatives take place every four years. Most of the seats are occupied by the four major parties that make up the government. However, representatives often vote on the basis of their personal views rather than a party line when it comes to particular issues.
For an official guide, see the Swiss parliament.
A cabinet minister first proposes new legislation to his or her cabinet colleagues.
If the other members of the government are persuaded, the relevant constituencies are consulted and a bill is drafted. This draft is then laid before one of the two chambers of parliament.
Once the proposal has been passed by the first chamber, it is sent to the other chamber for discussion. A bill cannot become law until it is accepted by both chambers of parliament.
The rejection of government proposals by parliament (or by the people) is an accepted part of Swiss democracy and does not lead to a government crisis, ministerial resignations or votes of confidence.
Switzerland gives its citizens the chance to take a direct part in political decision-making. Although direct democracy is not unique to Switzerland, it is probably more highly developed here than in any other country. Swiss citizens can either propose legislation of their own, or work to defeat legislation already approved by parliament.
Any citizen has the right to propose new legislation by launching an initiative. Typically these initiatives are proposed by interest groups. Once the group has gathered at least 100,000 signatures in support of the proposal, it is put to a nationwide vote.
A referendum is a popular vote called to challenge a piece of legislation already approved by parliament. If a group opposed to the new law manages to collect at least 50,000 signatures within 100 days of the official publication of the proposed legislation, it is again put to a nationwide vote. Such a vote is mandatory if the legislation involves an amendment to the constitution or if the government is proposing that Switzerland sign a major international agreement.
There has to be a "double majority" (a majority of the people and a majority of the cantons), for an initiative or mandatory referendum to pass.
Voter participation in these initiatives and referendums tends to be around 40%. This is not very high, and innovations such as e-voting are being proposed to get more people to vote.
Two of Switzerland’s 26 cantons - Appenzell Inner Rhodes and Glarus - still hold an annual open-air assembly in which the citizens can vote on proposals in person.
Here you will find an explanation of how direct democracy works in the context of the Swiss political system.