The parliament building in Bern is home to the House of Representatives, the Senate and the government

In the beginning...

This content was published on November 17, 2009 - 12:13

Switzerland’s political structures can be traced to the first federal constitution of 1848.

But the roots go back even further to 1291 when, according to legend, peasants in central Switzerland pledged to form an everlasting alliance bringing together Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, the first three cantons.

The initial aim of the pact was to assert limited freedom from the hegemony of the detested Habsburg rulers. This loose association grew to include 13 cantons by 1513.

Collective defence of the peasants’ independence from feudal masters had marked the first phase, and the next step was expansionism. The subjugation of adjoining territories continued until Europe’s rulers forced a halt.

Historians see the Swiss defeat in the 1515 Battle of Marignano in northern Italy as the culmination of Swiss territorial aspirations, if not achievements. This period marks the beginning of de facto Swiss neutrality, which was subsequently underwritten by the great powers at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation had before then swept across the country, ultimately leading to a brief civil war in 1847. That conflict between the seven conservative Catholic cantons and the dozen or so liberal Protestant cantons included urban areas and those where the Napoleonic occupation at the beginning of the 19th century had triggered democratic reforms.

Federal state

The year 1848 saw the creation of the federal state, with a new constitution, a federal parliament, and the first steps towards a measure of centralisation.

The lessons of the "Sonderbund" or civil war were not lost on the founders of the new state.

National unity depended on the state accommodating all the diverse political, linguistic, ethnic and religious elements that existed in the tiny area of Europe occupied by Switzerland. And federalism was deemed the only framework that could permit management of such a diverse country.

Where there is federalism there is also subsidiarity. This means political decisions are always taken at the lowest possible level, be this federal, cantonal or communal.

Even though the 1848 constitution was revised in 1874, and replaced by a new one in 2000, the fundamental autonomy of the cantons remains sacred.

Switzerland now has 26 cantons and half-cantons, each with its own cantonal constitutions (approved by the federal parliament). The newest canton, Jura, was admitted to the confederation by national plebiscite in 1979.

Cantons can raise taxes and make their own laws, as long as they are in line with federal legislation. They also elect their own governments and parliaments. Around a fifth of Switzerland's more than 2,600 local authorities have their own parliaments, and local laws relating to matters such as streets, school buildings, water and energy prices, as well as parking regulations.

Government powers

The powers of the federal government are firmly set out in the constitution. These include defence and internal security, foreign policy and diplomatic relations, customs, and postal, telephone and rail communications.

There has been a degree of liberalisation in the transport and telecommunication sectors, but the incumbent state-owned companies have retained large market shares. The federal authorities also regulate hunting and fishing, and federal law is dominant in compulsory national social security and disability schemes.

The energy sector, especially nuclear power, is still heavily regulated, and attempts at liberalisation have failed so far.

Switzerland has ratified the European Human Rights Convention.

When the federal Swiss state was founded in 1848, the country was a thoroughly republican democracy in a sea of monarchies.

The young state soon became a haven for radicals and revolutionaries. Lenin was in Switzerland during the First World War and he made his fateful journey to establish the Soviet Union from his exile in Zurich.

Within Switzerland, the 1848 constitution introduced far-reaching civil rights, giving citizens real influence in politics.

The Cabinet

Executive power is vested in the seven-member cabinet or Federal Council. Members are elected, re-elected or extremely rarely dismissed by parliament in Bern.

Elections for a new legislature are held every four years, and it is not uncommon for cabinet members or ministers to stay in office for ten years or more, although most change portfolios during that time.

In theory any sane Swiss can become a cabinet member. In practice, membership of one of the main parties represented in the cabinet since the Second World War seemingly offers the only chance of success.

In 1959 a cabinet reshuffle established what is called the "Magic Formula": 2-2-2-1. This meant two cabinet seats each for the Radicals, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, and a single seat for the People's Party, which in those days was called the farmers and artisans' party.

The sharing out of cabinet seats was in effect just a reflection of the proportional strength of the main parties in parliament. The growing power of the People's Party led to the Christian Democrats having to cede one of their seats after the 2003 elections.

But Christoph Blocher, the emblematic figure of the People's Party, failed to win re-election four years later.

As a result of the upset in parliament the People's Party expelled its two cabinet members, including the newly-elected Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf. Twelve months later the rightwing group formally came back into the fold with one minister.

Women ministers

So far there have only been six female ministers in Swiss history. The fact that the Christian Democrats gave up their seat held by a woman in 2003, while her male party colleague kept his, was seen as further proof of sexism in the political system.

The first woman to enter government was Elisabeth Kopp in 1984.

The cabinet and confederation has a president, but this is a job that rotates among cabinet ministers every year.

The Swiss president has no special powers or privileges. He or she chairs cabinet meetings and represents the country as host during the one state visit that Switzerland arranges per year.

Because there are only seven ministries, cabinet members have a heavy workload. Cabinet meetings are held every Wednesday at eight in the morning, and generally last till midday, after which lunch is taken in a Bern restaurant. If the need arises, ad hoc meetings can be organised.

Cabinet ministers are not members of parliament, but regularly have to make the case for their legislation, in both chambers. There is a weekly question time during the three-week parliamentary session, but as questions have to be submitted in writing in advance, this is not such a fraught event as in some other countries.

Consensus politics

A fundamental tenet of the Swiss four-party cabinet is the need to reach consensus and to demonstrate this before parliament and the public. This can usually be achieved only after long and fundamental debate, and it is not rare for cabinet ministers to have to represent policies of the majority, which are not necessarily in line with their own views.

This means ministers are sometimes estranged from their own parties over certain issues. Switzerland does not have a coalition government. There is no agreed multi-party programme, and the cabinet cannot be subjected to pressure from party alliances.

The nearest the cabinet gets to a fully-fledged coalition is a joint but non-binding report on cabinet aims during a four-year legislative period. A recent parliamentary attempt to tie the cabinet down more firmly failed.

Although not in the realm of big business, cabinet ministers are now well paid, earning around SFr400,000 ($316,000) a year. Cabinet members enjoy high social prestige, but sometimes still travel to work in Bern by tram.

But obtaining a seat in the cabinet is no easy matter. The written and unwritten checks and balances of the Swiss system mean that two candidates from the same canton, or several from the same region, mutually exclude each other.


A law banning more than one minister from the same canton has been repealed, but even so local jealousies ensure that the cabinet make-up must show a preferably proportional balance of regions, languages, religions, and of course party allegiances.

It is an unwritten rule that the three largest cantons - Zurich, Bern and Vaud - should be represented in the cabinet. This means that cantons like Geneva, which is better known worldwide than most of Switzerland, can go without cabinet representation for decades.

Similarly, Italian-speaking Switzerland has not been represented in the cabinet for several years, thus automatically improving the chances of any prospective candidate from canton Ticino.

The rule is, however, not hard and fast.

A cabinet elected solely by parliament is seen by some Swiss as an anomaly. There have thus been some tame efforts to discuss election of cabinet ministers by the people. The discussion was fuelled by the removal of Ruth Metzler and her replacement by Blocher.

Any such change would impinge on jealously guarded parliamentary powers. And this includes the power to more or less intentionally elect relatively weak cabinets.


National legislation is the task of the federal parliament in Bern, which usually meets for four sessions of three weeks' duration every year. Pressure of work or a crisis can lead to supplementary sessions of a few days.

The working pattern is a reflection of the militia or part-time functioning of representatives and senators, who nearly always also have a job outside parliament.

Parliament has two chambers in the same building. The House of Representatives, which represents the people, has 200 seats. The council of states or Senate, which represents the cantons, has 46 members.

There is no upper or lower house - legislation can be introduced in either chamber - but all drafts have to be passed by both chambers in identical wording.

The House is elected by proportional representation, the Senate by majority vote. Each full canton has two senators, half-cantons have one. Population size dictates the number of representatives sent to Bern.

Most draft legislation is submitted to parliament by the cabinet, but representatives and senators all have the individual right to table bills, binding and non-binding motions, or simple questions.

In addition there is a weekly question time in parliament where written questions are answered.

Although women have only had the vote for 30 years on a national level, their representation in parliament is still hovering around the 25 per cent mark, despite the fact that women account for over half the population.

Seen from the outside, Switzerland seems a typical parliamentary democracy. But what makes this country a special case is that neither cabinet ministers nor parliament have similar powers associated with such office in countries such as the United States, Britain or France.

People power

Practically anything the cabinet demands, or parliament approves, can be overturned by the people - or the "Sovereign" - as the electorate is sometimes called.

Once a law has been passed by parliament and is ready to be put in force, voters have 100 days to collect 50,000 signatures to force a nationwide referendum on the issue.

This is like a brake lever in the hands of the people and it explains why before draft legislation is put before parliament, there is an exhaustive consultation procedure among all interested parties.

But even this careful sounding out of opinion is no guarantee of success, as the cabinet and parliament have already discovered.

A quorum of cantons also has the right to call for a national referendum on issues affecting them. Although this right has been in force for over a century, it was used for the first time in 2004, when a referendum called by cantons overturned a federal tax and cost-cutting move.

But voters are not only able to put the brakes on legislation, they can also initiate it. By collecting 100,000 signatures, they can force a national vote on amending or supplementing the constitution.

Voters have 18 months to collect the necessary signatures, and during this time the government often submits a less far–reaching proposal. The record shows that this procedure is more likely to succeed than an initiative itself, which can only reckon on a 25-30 per cent chance of success.

Strictly speaking, an initiative must relate to constitutional matters, be that the scrapping of an article, or a new provision. However, this is not strictly adhered to, and in recent decades matters such as the banning of freemasonry, or arms exports have come in the form of people's initiatives.

International treaties of no fixed duration, such as joining the United Nations, have to be put to the people. In many other cases where a referendum would be optional, the government chooses to go ahead with a plebiscite so that opponents of the issue do not have the chance to mount a noisy campaign.

In summary, one can say Swiss voters have the ability to exert a strong push-pull force on the legislative and executive.


Switzerland and neutrality are synonymous. This country cannot enter military alliances unless it is attacked. Its forces can only be used for self-defence and internal security. It cannot take sides in international conflicts and cannot give right of transit to foreign forces.

For Switzerland, neutrality implies armed neutrality, which explains why the country has always strived to maintain its defence at a respectable level, and why military service remains compulsory under the constitution.

With the ending of the Cold War, neutrality is no longer the imperative it was for small nations. The interdependence of the modern world makes a pure and orthodox neutrality increasingly difficult.

But the self-imposed constraint of standing aside from the political world has modified attitudes to neutrality in Switzerland. The country has been a member of the UN since 2002, although it has, in fact, fully participated in the activities of the specialised agencies such as Unesco, the WHO, the FAO, the ILO, Unicef etc, for decades.

A nationwide referendum was needed to join the world body and some 55 per cent voted in favour. Switzerland is a member of Nato's Partnership for Peace, but there are no plans to join the military alliance, as this would certainly compromise neutrality.

UN membership has been hailed as a major step forward into the concert of nations but, in fact, Switzerland has continually supported international peace efforts since the Second World War, while stopping short of joining UN peacekeeping forces.

This country has been involved in truce supervision work following the Korean War, and in the Middle East since 1967. Swiss election observers have been sent to Africa and eastern Europe, and a 220-strong Swiss army company (Swisscoy) has been stationed for several years in Kosovo in support of international peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans.

Switzerland was an early member of the Council of Europe, and more recently of the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Foreign policy

The end of the Cold War world has allowed Switzerland to be more active in its foreign policy.

But this also applies to many other smaller countries, with the result that Switzerland is no longer the automatic choice as "go-between" in conflicts.

Swiss diplomats played a key role in brokering successful talks aimed at normalising relations between Turkey and Armenia strained over mass killings nearly a centutry ago. The landmark deal was sealed in Zurich in 2009.

The Swiss have also been invloved in mediation efforts in the Middle East, as well as in Sri Lanka and Colombia.

Switzerland also remains a venue for international talks; a recent example being meetings between US representatives with counterparts from Iran and Russia.

Providing "good offices" remains a Swiss foreign policy goal. The Swiss currently represent the interests of the US, Russia, Cuba, Iran and Georgia in different cases.

Others are safeguarding Swiss economic interests, the worldwide promotion of human rights and good governance, and protection of the environment and natural resources.

The most visible efforts are Swiss development aid projects, which are generally focused on the poorest nations, and are based on self-help.

Considerable sums are spent on humanitarian aid, especially after disasters like earthquakes. This is where the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit with its large body of experts comes into play.

Short-term emergency relief precedes longer-term infrastructure projects that are often run by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also a part of the foreign ministry.

Overseas development aid

The SDC focuses its financial and technical aid on a dozen priority countries and regions. Other developing countries receive Swiss support channelled through international programmes, and in cases of natural disasters the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit is responsible.

The western industrialised countries under the umbrella of the OECD increased their development aid in 2003.

Switzerland, a member of the OECD's Development Aid Committee (DAC) subscribed SFr1.9 billion in aid, amounting to 0.41 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). This is still short of the UN target of 0.7 per cent, but in per capita terms is very high.

Switzerland is also a member of the stabilisation pact for southeastern Europe, and contributes SFr1 billion to the EU's cohesion fund in favour of the new member countries from eastern Europe.


A long-standing symbol of Swiss humanitarian aid is the ICRC, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross.

This independent body helps in disaster areas all over the world. It promotes compliance with international humanitarian law, above all with respect to the Geneva Conventions relating to war victims and the treatment of prisoners-of-war. The ICRC can also act as mediator in conflicts.

Switzerland as depositary state of the Geneva Conventions has a keen interest in the successful work of the ICRC, and makes a sizeable contribution to costs, while not influencing the organisation politically.

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