Swiss Confederation

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Swiss Confederation

Type of Government

Switzerland is formally called a confederation, but it shares many similarities with a federal republic, or a federation of states in which individual regions enjoy a high degree of autonomy. The Swiss system is also an unusual model of direct democracy, whereby the tools of referendum (national yes-no votes) and initiative (a citizen’s right to introduce legislation) are still maintained in some form.


Located in a mountainous and heavily forested land, Switzerland was originally inhabited by the Helvetii, a Celtic tribe, and was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 58 BC. Its strategic location as an Alpine crossroad for various routes between the lands of the Franks, Germans, Burgundians, and Carolingians during the early medieval era caused strife and unhappy periods of foreign occupation. A feudal system emerged, with dukes wielding power over their domains, which came to be called cantons, under the ultimate protection of the Holy Roman Empire.

Once the Habsburgs came to rule the Holy Roman Empire, however, these privileges ended and heavy taxes were levied. Three of the cantons balked at these new rules, and in 1291 they united to form a defensive alliance against outside influence. These were the three so-called forest cantons of Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Uri. Not surprisingly, the Habsburg army was sent in, but it was decisively repelled at Morgarten Pass in 1315 and again at Sembach in 1386. By then, five more cantons—Bern, Glarus, Lucerne, Zug, and Zürich—had joined the eidgenossenschaft (confederacy).

Government Structure

The unofficial motto of Switzerland is “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno” (One for all, all for one), which is inscribed on the cupola of the Bundeshaus (federal palace) in Berne, the federal capital. Its constitution dates back to 1848, with sweeping revisions made in 1874 and again in 1999. The latest version became law on January 1, 2000. As with all previous forms, the Swiss constitution has one unusual feature that distinguishes it from similar documents of democratic governments: there is no high court with jurisdiction over laws passed by the legislature, such as the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, that right to review legislation is vested in the citizenry.

The Bundeshaus is home to the bicameral Federal Assembly. Its lower chamber, the National Council, represents the Swiss people. Its two hundred members are directly elected by the citizens of their respective cantons and serve four-year terms. The makeup of the chamber is determined by the population within the twenty-six cantons of the Swiss Federation. The canton of Geneva, for example, has a population of 438,000 and has eleven seats in the National Council; Uri is one of the smallest cantons, with a population of 35,000, and has just one seat. The members of the National Council elect their president, or speaker, to a one-year term. He or she may be reelected, but not to consecutive terms.

The upper chamber of the Federal Assembly is the Council of States, which represents the cantons. There are forty-six members, with twenty cantons having two seats, and six half-cantons (which resulted from divisions of preexisting cantons during Swiss history) sending just one representative to this body. Each canton is allowed to choose how its Council of States members are chosen, but all cantons now use the popular-vote method.

For a bill to become Swiss law, it requires the approval of both houses of the Federal Assembly. The concept of direct democracy is also enshrined in the constitution; it permits Swiss citizens to challenge a law enacted by the Federal Assembly. They have one hundred days in which to gather a minimum of fifty thousand signatures on a petition, and if successful the decision then moves onto a national referendum ballot. A similar process allows any citizen to propose a constitutional amendment.

The executive branch of the Swiss government is the Federal Council. Its seven members are elected by the Federal Assembly in a joint session. Each of the seven members holds a four-year term, and even though any Swiss adult is eligible to serve on the Federal Council, its members are commonly chosen from among the Federal Assembly officials or cantonal government figures. The joint session of the assembly also chooses the president and vice president of the Federal Council, and these are for one-year terms each; a president or vice president can be reelected, but not to consecutive terms.

The Federal Council serves as a cabinet for the federal government. Each of the seven members is responsible for one of the seven departments of the federal government: foreign affairs; justice and police; interior; environment, energy, transport, and communications; finance; defense, civil protection, and sports; and economic affairs. The members of the Federal Council are advised by the Federal Chancellery, which sends reports on Federal Council meetings to the Federal Assembly.

Switzerland’s twenty-six cantons enjoy an unusual degree of autonomy. They have individual constitutions, parliaments, and lower-court systems and are allowed sovereignty in any matter not specifically granted to the federal government in the constitution. For example, their unicameral legislatures may determine the level of taxation within the canton. Two of the smallest cantons, Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus, still retain the full legacy of Switzerland’s direct democracy principles: once a year, all citizens of the canton meet for a general assembly to approve or reject proposed laws and select a governing council. This practice continues even in some communes, the smaller divisions that comprise each canton.

Switzerland has an independent judiciary, and the thirty permanent members of its highest court, the Federal Court of Justice in Lausanne, are elected by the Federal Assembly. It hears appeals of cases decided at the cantonal court level and has other duties, but does not judge the constitutionality of laws passed by the Federal Assembly.

Suffrage in Switzerland is universal—that is, it is granted to all citizens over the age of eighteen. It was one of the last Western nations to allow women the right to vote in federal elections, which became law in 1971, and as late as 1990 one of the smaller cantons was compelled to allow its female citizens to vote in local elections by a federal court decision.

Political Parties and Factions

The federal level of Swiss political life is relatively free of partisanship. Even the selection of the seven-member Federal Council is governed according to what is known as the “magic formula,” by which the four largest political parties hold the seven posts on the Federal Council. This unofficial rule, which was implemented in the late 1950s, gives two Federal Council seats each to the center-right Free Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, and the leftist Social Democratic Party; the seventh place traditionally goes to a representative of the Swiss People’s Party, a right-wing party.

Major Events

Religious conflicts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries destabilized Switzerland. An army of the French Revolution overran Switzerland in 1798 and established the Helvetic Republic, but independence was reinstituted by the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Religious tensions continued, however, and a twenty-seven-day civil war occurred in 1847. This became the final armed conflict to ever take place on Swiss soil. A year later, the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation went into effect on September 12, 1848. An 1874 revision allowed for federal referendum on any law passed by the bicameral National Assembly. In 1891 the “right of initiative” was added to the document, which gave any Swiss citizen the means to propose changes to the constitution. All versions of the document have enshrined Switzerland’s historic status as a neutral state, which pledges its “nonparticipation in any armed conflict between other states.” This was first declared in 1515, but was only formally recognized by the rest of Europe at the Congress of Vienna.

Twenty-First Century

In domestic politics, a surprise shift to the right came in the 2003 federal legislative elections. The conservative Swiss People’s Party gained a majority of seats in the National Council—fifty-five out of two hundred, making it the largest bloc in the chamber. For the first time since the magic formula was devised in 1959, the balance of power on the Federal Council was adjusted. In this case, the Christian Democratic People’s Party relinquished one of its two seats to the Swiss People’s Party. Switzerland joined the United Nations in 2002 but remains outside the European Union.

Church, Clive H. The Politics and Government of Switzerland. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Fossedal, Gregory. Direct Democracy in Switzerland. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2002.

Wilson, John. The History of Switzerland. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

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