Direct Democracy

Switzerland's Political Systems
· Cantons
· Parliaments
· Multilinguism
· Federalism
· Religions


Switzerland's Political Systems

Switzerland's Political Organization

Switzerland - a small country located in the heart of western Europe - has quite a unique democratic tradition and 27 political systems (one federal and 26 cantonal systems). Basic facts and features about Switzerland's political organisation:

  • Switzerland is a Confederation of 26 cantons [canton = member state of the Swiss Confederation]
  • Switzerland's basic political philosophy can be described as a far reaching and sophisticated form of federalism granting cantons and communes a maximum of political self-determination and restricting the competences of the federal (national) authorities to the absolute minimum that is indispensable to run a modern, highly (post-)industrialised state.
  • Governments, administrations, parliaments and courts are organized on 3 political levels:
    - federal (national)
    - cantonal
    - communal
  • Direct Democracy with frequent Referendums on national, cantonal and communal levels.
  • Multilinguism
  • Multiple religious denominations, no "state religion"

The Confederation of 26 Cantons

20 of 26 cantons are considered full cantons, 6 are considered half cantons because they originated from internal divisions in three cantons: Appenzell was divided during the time of reformation, the rural part (hinterland) of Basel (Baselland) separated from the city (Basel-Stadt) in 1833, because the city refused to grant them equal rights, and Unterwalden split into Obwalden and Nidwalden. Therefore you may also read a number of only 23 cantons in some sources. From 1815 to 1979 the rest of the former prince bishopric of Basel was part of canton Bern, then they were granted autonomy as a new canton Jura. So older sources do count only 22 Swiss cantons.

Concerning their institutions, all 26 cantons have equal competences and rights of autonomy and their internal organisation does not depend on whether they are full or half cantons at all. But as they are very different in size (both area and population), cantonal structures have to and do differ widely. While a few smaller cantons are still able to call their electorate to reunions (so-called Landsgemeinden) to discuss(!) and vote on cantonal affairs, this would be completely impractible for the larger ones (just imagine 700'000 citizens of canton Zurich gathering at a Landsgemeinde ...).

The distinction between full and half cantons is relevant in voting arithmetics, however: full cantons may send two, half cantons only one member to the small chamber of Switzerland's federal parliament.
See also: Table of Switzerland's cantons (including coats of arms, area, population)

Switzerland's Parliamentary System

Federal Parliament

Like most federal countries, Switzerland has a two-chamber federal parliament with one chamber representing the population and one chamber representing the federal states.

  • The National Council has 200 members and is elected every four years according to a specially sophisticated version of the proportional election system allowing for the proportional representation of political parties as well as for the selection of personalities. Every of the 26 cantons is a constituency, so the proportional representation is not absolute: a few small cantons may only send one deputee, while the largest cantons have up to about 30 seats.

  • The Council of States has 46 members, two per full and one per half canton. The cantons may decide themselves in their cantonal constitution, who is going to represent them and how long the period of office is. In most cantons the members of the Council of States are elected in a majority election on the same day the election for the National Council takes place.

The two chambers of parliament meet several times annually to sessions of several weeks and between them to preparing meetings of numerous parliamentary commissions. Being member of parliament is not a full time job in Switzerland, contrary to most other countries today. This means, that members of parliament do have another job and are therefore closer to everyday life of their electorate.
See also: (official website of Switzerland's federal parliament)

Cantonal and Local Parliaments

Every canton has a cantonal parliament with usually about 100 members. Major towns and cities do have their own parliaments, and believe it or not, the city of Lucerne even has an additional children's parliament with an own (symbolic) budget.
See also: (official website of children's parliament, Lucerne)

Multilinguism in Switzerland

The Swiss confederation is not based on the usual principle of European nations "one nation - one language". Switzerland has four official languages (German, French, Italian and Rumantsch) that are used in different regions of the country.

It should be stated clearly, however, that multilinguism is not relevant in everyday life (one of the official languages dominates almost absolutely in of most Swiss regions (except for a few truly bilingual towns and villages along the border of regions). The Swiss do learn some foreign languages at school, but they are definitely not "naturally multilingual".

Much to the contrary to everyday life, multilinguism does play an important role in Switzerland's political systems. There are some differences in mentality between the major language groups. The western (French speaking) and southern (Italian speaking) regions do often play the "minority card" to get some extra attention with the federal government and parliament in matters that do in fact not really depend on language nor mentality, but rather on various economic and other regional influences.

After national referendums French speaking Swiss politicians and journalists often deplore that their language minority was once again dominated by the German speaking majority. A closer look on the results would show, however, that the "language factor" is in most cases less relevant than the "city vs. countryside factor".

Federalism in Switzerland

While the federal system can be found in many other countries like the U.S.A., Germany, Austria etc., no other nation does delegate so many competences to federal states and communes than Switzerland does. Undoubtedly, consequent delegation of competences to the lowest level possible creates a widespread sense of responsibility and self-reliance among the population.

Some people would also argue that local solutions tailored to the needs of the population are more cost-effective and yet fit better than standardised solutions from a far away central government. This may indeed be true for the direct cost of government and administration, but it does also mean additional administrative efforts for any company doing business in more than just one canton.

Multiple Religions in Switzerland

Like any other European country, Switzerland's native population is Christian since the early middle ages, with a small Jewish minority. Since the time of Reformation, Switzerland was split into catholic and reformed regions. While confessional traditions did have a strong influence on internal Swiss politics until the middle of the 20th century, internal migration and secularisation have reduced the importance of religion in Swiss politics since.

While the Christian Democratic Party (formerly Catholic Conservative Party) held an absolute majority in central Switzerland's parliaments and a constant representation of 22% in the National Council (parliament) all through the 20th century, its popularity has been eroding rapidly since about 1995. In 2003 they only reached 14% and had to give up one of two seats in the national government.

In most cantons, predominantly in central and eastern Switzerland, the cantonal authorities do collect taxes for the major religions (usually the catholic and the reformed church, in a few cantons also dissident catholics, jewish and muslim communities), but only if these are organised in a democratic way with church parliaments. In exchange these religious communities are expected to assume some responsability in the field of running or supporting institutions for elderly people, associations for childrens (like scout groups), and cultural activities. Most western Switzerland cantons do have a strict separation of church and state, however.
See also: Religions in Switzerland

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