Switzerland has been a federal state since 1848. Authority is shared between the Confederation (central state), the 26 cantons and half-cantons (federal states) and the 2,240 smaller local communes, or municipalities. (status 23.3.2017)
Each canton has its own cantonal constitution, approved by the federal parliament. Although the internal autonomy of cantons is exactly the same for full and half cantons, half cantons have only one seat instead of two in the Senate, and a half vote in cases where a majority of cantons must approve constitutional changes in nationwide votes.
Each canton has its own constitution and laws. These must be compatible with those of the Confederation. Governments of cantons have wide powers of decision-making. They set their own levels of taxation, and run their own educational systems, social services and police.
Cantonal governments have five to seven members and are elected by the people. Cantonal parliaments have one chamber and are known by different names in different cantons.
The newest canton, Jura, was admitted to the Confederation by a national vote in 1979. It split off from Bern. In November 2013 a referendum seeking to merge canton Jura with canton Bern's French-speaking municipalities was defeated by voters.
There is also a third level of government in Switzerland, the local level. Cities, towns and villages often enjoy a great deal of autonomy in running their own affairs. Around a fifth of Switzerland's communes have their own parliaments, and local laws relating to matters such as streets, school buildings, water and energy prices, as well as parking regulations.
Communes are governed by their own elected representatives. Depending on the canton, communes enjoy sometimes considerable discretionary powers besides implementing the decisions of higher-level governments. They decide on matters of education, health, transport and public security. They also collect all taxes.
The majority of communes hold an annual assembly where citizens can vote on issues put before them. In cities and larger towns, however, most of the decision-making is done by a local parliament and an elected municipal council; but citizens still get to vote (at the ballot-box or by post) on major decisions like the municipal budget.
The number of communes is decreasing due to mergers. This is a controversial development in Switzerland, and proposals to combine smaller, less viable communes into larger entities evoke plenty of opposition at the local level. Still, the urge to merge is growing in many parts of the country.
Editorial note: this information was current as of June 2017 and is no longer being updated.