In this article we talk about the political system in Switzerland. We have tried to explain the somewhat complicated subject in simpler terms. Embedded in the text are words in the vernacular that pertain to the subject. We at Learn Swiss German don’t just want to teach you the language, but would like you to have an understanding of our country. For instance, do you know anything about the Swiss army? If not, here is an interesting article on the subject.
The Swiss political system is a semi direct democracy. In comparison to other systems “im Uusland”, it has stronger elements of direct democracy. This means that the people are the highest political entity and can decide on many issues and laws (direct democracy). The people also choose the parliament which then chooses the Federal Council (indirect or representative democracy).
Neutrality: an important issue in Switzerland
Neutrality is “eini vo üsne wichtigschte Grundsätz” (en.: one of the most important conventions). We do not engage in armed conflict in other countries. In Swiss German this is summarised as “Mir si neutral u wei nüt mit däne Konfliktä ztue ha” (en.: we are nocomittet and want nothing to with a conflict). Neutrality was established under international law in 1815 and, since then, Switzerland has not participated in any war outside of the country. It has even hindered military attacks from other nations. However, we still have a Swiss army.
The electoral system
Every 18 year old Swiss citizen of sound judgement gets (in Swiss German: “überchunt”) the right to vote. In the canton of Glarus, 16 year old citizens may vote on cantonal and municipal issues as well. In 1971 women received the vote on a federal level (“Fraueschtimmrächt”). However, in the canton of Appenzell, women may only vote on a cantonal level since 1990.
Limitations on the terms of office are there so that it isn’t possible for an individual to stay too long in power and possibly block new ideas. The limitations are not proscribed by law and are handled differently in the cantons and municipalities. It is, however, common to limit the period in office to two to four terms. ”Ei Amtsperiode isch 4 Johr.” (en.: one presidental tearm lasts four years.) Neither the Federal Council nor the Federal Assembly (National Council and States Council) have term restrictions; this has led to quite a few debates on the subject.
Individuals can be forced to take office, a practice which is highly controversial. It is mostly used in smaller municipalities where they cannot find enough “Gmeindröt”(en.: local council). In this case, the Municipal Assembly has the legal possibility of appointing individuals to the Municipal Council. Should the appointed person refuse to take on the office, they can be fined. In some cases, not enough people can be found to make up a Municipal Council and the assembly has to merge “z’fusionierä” with another municipality.
The Federal Council is voted in by the Federal Assembly every four years. The council then votes in the President and the Vice President of the Federal Council on a yearly bases. The President is of equal standing with the other Federal councillors; however, they take on more representational tasks and have the decisive vote. And now for a whole sentence in Swiss German: “Ä uusbildig zum Politiker gits bi üs nid. Mir händs Milizsyschtem. Das heisst, dass di meischte Politiker näbenamtlich tätig si”.
Every once in a while, an attempt is made to change the electoral system of voting for the Federal Council in favour of the people voting the council members in directly. Proponents for changing the system argue that direct democracy would be strengthened and opponents maintain that campaigning would be expensive and minorities might be disadvantaged. A popular initiative was launched four times already, but failed to get the majority vote.
Mandatory or optional referendums
Parlament makes the laws and suggests “Änderige i dä Verfassig” (en.: changes in the constitution). Changes in the constitution require a “Volksabschtimmig” (en.: popular vote) which is a mandatory referendum. The constitution is the highest law and the state must adhere to it. It guarantees constitutional and civic rights for the people (suffrage, right to vote, power of initiative and referendum). Citizens who want to veto changes in the law not covered in the constitution have the power of optional referendum. Launching an optional referendum requires 50’000 “Unterschriftä” (en.: signatures). If no one launches an optional referendum, the new law passed by the parliament comes into force.
Every citizen has the right to bring a proposal to change the constitution to an “Abschtimmig” (en.: voting). To do this, they have to launch a popular initiative first by forming an initiative committee of 7 to 27 eligible voters and then collecting 100’000 signatures within 18 months. The initiative is submitted to the Federal Chancellery who examines it and has it translated into the other national languages. If all “Aaforderige” are fulfilled, the popular initiative gets published in the Federal Gazette. The Parliament and the Federal council “normalerwiis” (en.: normally) prepare “ä Gegäentwurf” (en.: an alternative draft) after which it is put to the vote. Voter participation is usually at 40-50%.
Citizens have the right to petition the authorities. However, a petition, contrary to a popular initiative, has “kei rächtlichi Bindig” (en.: no judicial bond) so there is no legal imperative to change the law. The authorities do take the petition seriously and respond to it. A petition does not have to fulfil any formal requirements and can be submitted to any authority.
Separation of powers
Separation of powers is used to prohibit an individual from attaining too much power. Power is distributed amongst “drü Gwalte”: the legislative power, the executive power and the judicial power.
The legislative power is the Federal Assembly, consisting of “die uus zwei gliichgschtellte Rät” (en.: two boards): the National Council and the States Council. Members of both councils are “gwählt” (en.: elected) by the people.
The executive power is, on a national level, the Federal Council. The council consists of seven members and is voted in by the National Council and States Council. On a cantonal and municipal level the executive is voted in by the people. The executive is responsible for the implementation and execution of the law.
The judicial power is the Federal Supreme Court and is the “höchschte Gricht” (en.: highest court). It supervises the keeping of law and order. Judges are chosen by the Federal Assembly who also make sure that all languages and regions are “verträtte” (en.:represented).
Federalism “bedütet” (en.: means) that the nation is divided into “chlineri Iiheite” (en.: smaller units), the cantons. Each one of the 26 cantons has its own government, courts and parliaments as well as its own constitution and laws. The federal constitution governs the jurisdictions of the cantons and tasks them with responsibilities not assigned to the state. Responsibilities which fall under the jurisdiction of the state are, for instance, national defence and foreign policy. Cantons are responsible for education and the police. The “dritti Ebeni” (en.: third plain) of federalism are the municipalities; their jurisdiction is determined by the cantonal constitution.
The four strongest political parties in Switzerland
Switzerland is politically very stable. Four parties (SVP, SP, FDP.Die Liberalen and CVP) dominate in national politics.
The SVP, in Swiss German “di schwiizerischi Volkspartei” (en.: Swiss party) has faced quite a few “Meinigsungerschiede” (en.: disagreements) (as the Bernese would say) within its own party in recent years.
The SP, the Social Democratic Party, has also had to face some losses in the last few years, but is still a strong party.
The FDP.Die Liberalen, Free Democratic Party, is liberal and close to industry. The FDP merged with the liberals in 2009; hence the slightly longer name.
The CVP, the Christian Democratic Party was originally a conservative Catholic party. Today the party is slightly right oriented.
Contrary to most European countries, Switzerland has no legal regulation of party finances. Because of this, the political parties are often accused of lacking transparency in their financial dealing and corruption.. Campaign money is raised through donations by party members or external institutions. Donors are differentiated as party sympathisers who expect no favours in return and lobbyists. Lobbyists expect to influence party decisions with their donations.
Now you know the ins and outs of the Swiss political system and have also learnt a few more Swiss German words and phrases. Curious to learn more? Visit our course Learn-Swiss-German.ch.