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Understanding the Swiss political system

Although Switzerland is known as a direct democracy, its political system and frequent referendums remain a great mystery to most foreigners, if not an anomaly.

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Although CH, meaning Swiss Confederation, is the country's international code, Switzerland has been a federal state rather than a confederation since 1848.

What is federalism in Switzerland, and what is it for?

Switzerland is a federal state, which means that power is not centralised, but divided between the municipalities, cantons and the confederation. People have a direct influence.

This sharing makes it possible to unify and ensure the coexistence of linguistic, religious and territorial diversities and minorities. Switzerland is therefore a nation based on mutual consent and the fundamental principle of the separation of powers.

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What is direct democracy in Switzerland?

Direct democracy, unique to the Swiss, allows the people to participate in political decisions at the federal and cantonal levels. Its main "cornerstones" are the citizen's initiative allowing a revision of the Constitution and the referendum, which allows a decision to be made on certain laws adopted by Parliament.

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Who does what?

The Federal Council

The Executive Branch

The Federal Council is the government of Switzerland. It is composed of seven councillors who are elected by the Federal Parliament. Their role is to manage day-to-day business, oversee the Confederation's finances and put forward laws to be adopted by Parliament.

Each councillor chairs a department of the Federal Administration. They are elected by Parliament for a term of office is four years and are considered the voice of the people.

Because of power sharing, the government currently represents four separate political parties.

Decisions are made in a collegial manner, i.e. by consensus. Federal councillors must defend the government's position, even if it differs from that of their own party or their own personal beliefs.

The Presidency

Official representative of Switzerland

Each year, the Federal Assembly elects a President from among the seven councillors. His or her term of office lasts only one year, running concurrently with his or her term of office as a councillor, and does not provide any additional power.

The role of President is essentially the role of Switzerland’s official representative, which consists of welcoming visiting heads of state, leading the Federal Council meetings and delivering speeches on New Year's Day and on the country's national holiday (1 August), among others.

The Chancellery

General staff of the Federal Council

The Chancellor is elected by Parliament for a four-year term. His or her main role is to support the government.

He or she takes part in the various meetings of the Federal Council, but does not vote.

The Chancellery's various tasks include the translation of laws, voting materials, treaties and ordinances; the communication and publication of Federal Council decisions; and the management of residences where the Federal Council receives guests.

The Parliament

The legislative power

The Parliament consists of two chambers: the National Council, which represents the population, and the Council of States, which represents the 26 cantons.

The chambers have the same powers and rights, and normally sit separately. They have the same objectives and follow the same procedures.

They meet to elect members of the Federal Council and the federal courts, and together they form the Federal Assembly (united chamber).

The role of Parliament is to

  • put forward amendments to the Constitution to the people and cantons as well as draft laws on a plethora of topics;
  • elect members of the Federal Council and the federal courts;
  • take responsibility for overseeing the people, which places it in charge of the Federal Council and the Public Prosecutor's Office.

Why are there two chambers if they do the same thing?
It's all about balance! Bicameralism makes it possible to strike a balance between large and small cantons, and to give more weight to minority language regions.

And how are decisions made?
With the exception of the Federal Assembly, decisions are taken separately and the chambers deliberate independently of each other.

What happens if opinions differ?
The chambers put forward their own points of view and settle their differences until the law is adopted by both chambers. In the event of persistent disagreement, the draft law is abandoned.

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The courts of the Confederation

The judiciary

There are four courts at the federal level:

1. The Federal Court has the highest judicial powers in Switzerland.

  • It must ensure the consistent and uniform application of federal law throughout the country.
  • The case law of the Federal Court must be applied by the other courts and administrative authorities of the country.
  • Like the Supreme Court, it has the right to overturn a decision of a lower court and to refer the case for further review. However, it does not have the power to override a federal law.
  • There are 38 federal judges who are elected for six years by the Federal Assembly (the combined chambers). In addition to their skills, judges are also elected to maintain a linguistic, regional and political balance.

2. The Federal Criminal Court handles cases and infringements that pertain to the Confederation.

3. The Federal Administrative Court, the largest court in Switzerland, handles appeals against all decisions handed down by the Federal Administration.

4. The Federal Patent Court handles civil law disputes related to patents.

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