Swiss look to redraw federal map

The balance of power in Switzerland has shifted RTS

Parliament is considering major reforms to narrow the gap between richer and poorer cantons.

This content was published on June 12, 2003 - 09:50

The changes strike at the very heart of the Swiss federal system and would bolster the power of the cantons.

A core problem over the years, says political commentator Johann Aeschlimann, has been a gradual loss of political influence by the cantons.

Aeschlimann, along with many others, claims a "creeping" centralisation has shifted the balance of power away from the regions to the capital, Bern.

"A lot of standards for environmental regulations, such as pollution control, for example, are being set at a federal level and the cantons are obliged to make it happen," he told swissinfo.

"This means the cantons are losing their influence and more importantly their ability to shape policy."

Balance of power

Aeschlimann says the proposed changes would define whether a canton or the federal government has responsibility for a particular policy area.

He adds that confusion surrounds many aspects of government because there is no clear division of responsibility.

Running old people's homes and universities, for example, are both cantonal and federal matters.

"The idea [of the reform] is to define clearly what areas the [central] government and cantons are responsible for, and to ensure that whoever pays is responsible for what happens," he said.

Greater role

A unique feature of the Swiss brand of federalism is that the cantonal - or regional - governments have traditionally played a much more important role in shaping and implementing policy than their counterparts in other countries.

Police forces and the education system are both administered at a cantonal level.

The cantons also raise taxes, and a system exists for pooling this money and then redistributing it among all the cantons.

However, the tax rate is not uniform and people on the same income can pay vastly different amounts depending on where they live.

A person in a wealthy canton will pay far less tax than someone earning the same salary but living in a poorer one.

Rich and poor

Aeschlimann says the current method of redistribution has proved inadequate, as the gap between the rich and poor cantons has continued to grow.

"The divide is getting wider and the problem is getting bigger," he said. "That is one of the political reasons for this reform."

The proposed reforms are aimed at redressing the balance so that, in theory, more money flows from the wealthier cantons.

But Aeschlimann says that to win support for the changes, the government has had to cap contributions from wealthier cantons.

This is to counter claims from the likes of Zurich and Zug that they would be unfairly penalised.

The threshold, says Aeschlimann, guarantees wealthier cantons that they will not be asked for ever-increasing contributions.

Urban and rural areas

The reforms also take into account the different needs of Switzerland's cities and rural areas.

Under the proposed changes, larger cities would get more funding for their ageing populations and social problems.

More sparsely-populated rural areas would get help in meeting the costs of transportation and basic services.

The reforms - if they pass through parliament - would still have to be put to a nationwide vote because of the many constitutional and legal changes required.

That, in itself, says Aeschlimann, poses another problem since the issue, while striking at the very core of Swiss federalism, does not exactly capture the public's imagination.

"A big problem for the government is that, firstly, nobody is really interested in the reform, and secondly, nobody really understands it," he said.

"The government currently has an exhibition touring the cantons to prepare people for what is coming and maybe stir up some interest."

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

Switzerland has a three-tier system of cantonal, local community and federal government taxes.
There are great differences in tax levels between the 26 Swiss cantons, because the country's federal system allows them to set their own tax rates.
Every canton has its own education system and police force.

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In brief

Aims of the reforms:
- to narrow the gap between Switzerland's richer and poorer cantons;
- to take into account the different needs of cities and rural areas;
- to ensure that no canton that benefits under the current system will lose out under the new one;
- to streamline the areas of joint responsibility between cantons and the federal government.

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