Every country has its own political system, and Switzerland’s political system is something very special worldwide. Switzerland is neither a purely parliamentary nor a presidential democracy. It is based on the so-called directorial system. This system of government is characterised by a national bicameral parliament and a uniquely designed Federal Council, which unites both the collective head of state and the federal government. Federalism is also an important component of the directorate system.

Das Bundeshaus in Bern
The Bundeshaus in Bern – where Swiss politics is being made

Swiss federalism

In Switzerland, the autonomy of the individual cantons plays a fundamental role, unlike in France, for example, where there is strong centralism. Each of the 26 cantons has its own government, courts and parliaments, as well as its own constitution and laws. The Federal Constitution regulates the competences and assigns to the cantons those tasks that have not been entrusted to the Confederation. The Confederation’s tasks include national defence and foreign policy. The cantons are responsible, among other things, for education and the police. The “third tier” of federalism is the communes, whose powers and duties are governed by the cantonal constitution.

Swiss democracy

The form of government in Switzerland corresponds to a semi-direct democracy. Compared with other countries, it has very strong elements of direct democracy. This means that the people are the supreme political authority and have the right to decide on many issues and laws themselves (direct democracy). The people elect Parliament, which then elects the Federal Council (indirect or representative democracy).

The legendary Swiss Guard is the smallest army in the world and protects the Pope

Neutrality: the heart of Swiss politics

Neutrality is one of the most important principles of Switzerland. We do not participate in armed conflicts of other states. In Swiss German, this would be summarized as follows: “I am neutral and don’t get involved in Danish conflicts”. Neutrality was recognised under international law in 1815, and since then we have not taken part in wars outside the country. Even military incursions from outside have been prevented to this day. Nevertheless, we still have the Swiss army.

The electoral system

Every 18-year-old Swiss citizen who is able to judge is entitled to vote. In the Canton of Glarus, this right is even granted from the age of 16, but only in cantonal and communal votes. Women’s voting rights at national level were introduced in 1971. In the canton of Appenzell Innerhoden, however, women have only been allowed to vote since 1990.

The restriction on terms of office is intended to prevent a person from remaining in office for a long period of time and, on the one hand, blocking new ideas and, on the other hand, gaining too much power. The restriction on terms of office is not regulated by law and is handled individually in the cantons and municipalities. Often, however, a limitation to two to four terms of office applies. In the case of the Federal Council, the term of office is not limited. The same applies to the Federal Assembly (National Council and Council of States), which repeatedly leads to discussions.



The obligation to hold office is very controversial and questionable, but is often applied to smaller municipalities, as they usually do not have enough local councillors. In this case the municipal assembly has the possibility to elect citizens to the municipal council without their consent. Anyone who nevertheless refuses to accept the office is punished with a fine. If not enough people can be found for the municipal council office, the administration would be forced to merge with other municipalities.

The Federal Council is elected every four years by the Federal Assembly. Within the Federal Council, the Federal President and Vice-President are appointed annually. The Federal President is on an equal footing with the other Federal Councillors, but has more representative duties and has the casting vote in votes. This means that he or she has the casting vote in the event of a tie.

Time and again attempts have been made to change the Federal Council’s electoral system and have it elected by the people. Proponents argue that this strengthens direct democracy, while opponents argue that this might disadvantage the minority and make election campaigns very expensive. Such a popular initiative has already been launched four times, but each time it failed because of the majority of the people.

50'000 signatures must be collected for the optional referendum
50’000 signatures must be collected for the optional referendum

Mandatory and optional referendum

The parliament makes the laws and proposes amendments to the constitution. Changes to the constitution are subject to a mandatory referendum, also known as the obligatory referendum. The constitution is the supreme law, and the state must adhere to it. It guarantees fundamental rights and regulates the rights of the people (voting, election, initiative and referendum rights). In the case of an optional referendum, citizens can demand a vote on all other changes to the law that are not regulated by the Constitution. An optional referendum must be held and at least 50,000 signatures collected. If the optional referendum is not held, the parliamentary decision on the law automatically comes into force.

100’000 signatures = A citizens’ initiative

Every citizen has the right to put his or her own proposal on how the Federal Constitution should be amended to a vote. To do so, he or she must launch a popular initiative, and 100,000 signatures must be collected within 18 months. An initiative committee must consist of at least 7 to a maximum of 27 voters. The initiative submitted is examined by the Federal Chancellery and translated into the other national languages. If all requirements are met, the outcome of the popular initiative is published in the Federal Gazette. Normally, Parliament and the Federal Council prepare a counter-proposal. The people then vote on whether the initiative should be adopted. As a rule, the turnout is 40 – 50%.

The Petition

A petition is a petition. Every citizen can use it to communicate a concern to an authority. In contrast to the popular initiative, however, it has no legal obligation and there is no right to change the law. However, the authorities take the concerns seriously and respond to them. The petition does not have to meet any formal requirements and can be addressed to any authority.

The Swiss Federal Supreme Court is in Lausanne
The Swiss Federal Supreme Court is in Lausanne

Separation of powers

The power or violence is divided among different people, thus preventing one person from gaining too much power. A distinction is made between three powers: The legislative power (legislative), the executive power (executive) and the judicial power (judiciary).

The legislative power is vested in the Federal Assembly, which consists of two equal councillors. The National Council, which represents the people, and the Council of States, which represents the cantons. Its main task is to draft and pass laws. The members of the two Councils are elected by the people.

The executive branch at national level is the Federal Council, which consists of seven members and is elected by the National Council and the Council of States. In the cantons and communes, the executive branch is elected by the people. It is responsible for the implementation and enforcement of laws.

The judiciary is the Federal Supreme Court, it is the highest court and monitors compliance with the rules and laws. The judges are elected by the Federal Assembly, taking into account that all languages and regions are represented.

After Swiss politics Swiss German

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Switzerland’s unique political system
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