Unequal taxation system linked to Swiss federalism

Tax returns are a headache for all but some feel the pinch more than others swissinfo C Helmle

Switzerland's federal system may bind the nation together - but there's nothing uniform about the country's method of taxation.

This content was published on August 22, 2002 - 13:49

There are vast differences in tax levels among the cantons.

While an unmarried resident of canton Zug - the favoured home of Switzerland's crop of billionaires - is required to pay only SFr4,682 in tax on an income of SFr70,000, his or her less fortunate compatriot in Basel has to part with the sum of SFr11,421.

The disparity is explained by the structure of the country's federal system, which allows each of the 26 Swiss cantons to set their own individual tax rates.

Direct federal tax

Cantonal authorities have a mandate to impose their own taxes, as do local communities, and these make up the lion's share of people's tax bills. The federal government levies its own tax, but this makes up only about three to six per cent of the average couple's total bill.

This unusual three-tier system of tax collecting means that a married couple in Fribourg with a combined income of SFr100,000 would have had to hand the cantonal authorities a total of SFr9,322 in 2001.

They would have paid a further SFr7,923 to the community which they live, while just SFr2,425 would have found its way to the federal coffers in the Swiss capital, Bern.

Regional disparity

Tax rates for both single people and married couples are as diverse as the country's cultural and linguistic regions.

A couple with two children, for example, could save money by depositing their combined taxable income of SFr70,000 in canton Zug, where they would only have to pay 1.84 per cent (SFr1,287) in taxes.

An identical couple who decide to set up home in canton Neuchâtel, by contrast, would have to pay just over eight per cent (SFr5,676) on the same amount.

Critics argue that the Swiss system of taxation favours the rich at the expense of those on lower incomes. They say low-tax cantons - such as Zug and Schwyz - attract the rich, enabling them to keep taxes down, while areas with many low-income earners may be forced to raise tax to balance their books.

Communal taxes

A number of minor taxes levied by authorities at a communal level also vary widely - sometimes even between places just a stone's through from each other.

Dog owners living in certain communities of canton Geneva, for example, are required to pay an annual tax of just SFr43.50.

But lovers of man's best friend living in other communities within the same canton have to part with SFr80 for the right to own and walk their pet.

In 2001, a group of politicians in canton Vaud launched a campaign against the disparate nature of Switzerland's tax system by calling for a single rate of tax for all 384 communes.

Correspondents say similar moves nationwide would almost certainly fail.

The proof that the Swiss remain very much attached to their system of tax collection - despite the disparities - came when over 68.5 per cent of voters in canton Vaud rejected the idea of a uniform system of taxation.


In brief

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.

In Zug a married couple with two children pays 1.84 per cent cantonal tax whereas in Neuchâtel the rate would be over eight per cent.

Tax rates for single people and married couples also differ.

Critics argue that the Swiss tax system favours the rich over the poor, but the Swiss remain attached to their system.

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