Das Bundeshaus in Bern. Foto/Photo: TES

Swiss Democracy at Work

Switzerland’s political system is unique in the world. It also functions relatively well. The country is not only the world champion of direct citizen control over municipal, cantonal and national policy.

The governments of municipalities and cantons are also directly elected by the people through the absolute majority system per candidate. Moreover, the number of municipal council members or cantonal government members is limited to five or seven. This maximum is stipulated in the Constitution of the cantons and municipal laws.

However, the prosperity, political stability and coherence in this culturally, linguistically, historically, economically, and religiously divided country is not only a result of direct democracy. The fundament is the federal organisation, decentralisation and the functioning of the federal government.

The cantons are sovereign in many areas: education, health care, social security, justice and, for example, police. The cantons can delegate powers to municipalities based on their Constitution.

However, cantons and municipalities must respect international treaties, federal law, and the Constitution. The supreme judges in these cases are the highest federal court (the Bundesgericht/Tribunal fédéral in Lausanne) and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Powers of federation

The powers of the federal government are limited to areas explicitly transferred and stated in the Constitution after approval by the cantons and citizens. Since the creation of the modern Confoederatio Helvetica in 1848 and especially after 1945, more and more powers have been transferred.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the tension in the relationship between 26 sovereign cantons and the federal government. This discussion has been going on for a long time and has yet to be closed concerning possible reforms. This system also has its weaknesses.

The federal government has about 40 000 civil servants (900 000 in the Netherlands). The federal government is also limited to seven ministers (Bundesrat/Bundesrätin/conseilleur fédéral), according to the Constitution of 1848. The number of ministers in the Netherlands is 29 (including 9 state secretaries)!

The EU has 27 departments, including horse trading, lack of transparency and democratic farce in the appointment proceedings.

In Switzerland, however, it is also and above all about democratic control and quality, including in the composition of the government (based on principles of collegiality (Kollegialitätsprinzip), cooperation (Konkordanzprinzip), the magic formula (Zauberformel) and the appointment of ministers. 

The government (Bundesrat/Conseil fédéral )

The functioning of the government, the executive, the parliament-government relationship, the composition of the parliament, and the legislature, consisting of the Council of States (Ständerat/Conseil d’ Etats) and the National Council (National Rat/Conseil national) are covered in other contributions.

This article focuses on the appointment procedure of the seven federal government ministers. This procedure symbolises the quality and fundament of the political system.

The seven ministers are elected one by one by the parliament (the 246 members of the two chambers) and appointed after the general national elections under the proportional system or if ministers resign or die in the interim.

The magic formula’s distribution is fixed based on the four largest parties: 2-2-2-1 in parliament. The government is always a coalition government. Ministers are elected by the parliament because of their individual quality and not upon coalition negotiations or a governmental programme, where the largest party takes the lead.

A prime minister does not influence the appointment because this function has no place in the Swiss system. A new primus/a inter pares is elected annually from the seven ministers as head of state but without prime minister status. The collegiality principle applies.

After the ministers are appointed by parliament, the seven departments are distributed based on experience, competence, ambitions and qualities.

Ministers are appointed for four years and cannot be forced to resign mid-term (except for particular circumstances). The government, on the other hand, cannot dissolve parliament.

The appointment procedure 

Candidates must meet some constitutional requirements (including Swiss citizenship with political rights, not being a member of parliament or the Federal Court and a proportional representation of government members by (language) region).

An absolute majority of half of the votes plus 1 elect a candidate. Sometimes two or three rounds of voting are needed in Parliament.

However, based on the magic formula, the choice is limited to the membership of one of the four largest parties. Today, these are the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP, two ministers), the Sozialistische Partei (SP, two ministers), the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, two ministers) and die Mitte (1 minister). If a minister resigns or dies mid-term, members of their party become the new minister.

The strength of the procedure, however, is its carefulness. Lengthy processes and voting rounds occur within the party in the cantons and at the national level.

Based on this selection, two or three candidates usually remain for the decisive vote in parliament. The party’s favourite does not automatically get the majority. Sometimes, in 14% of cases, party outsiders are elected against the will of the party’s faction!

The election

Candidates often have long-term experience in (cantonal or federal) politics, support in the party, organisational experience and personal characteristics, with career and engagement/ involvement in the country’s functioning as essential criteria.

A concrete example is the appointment of two new ministers due to the interim resignation of Minister Ueli Mauer of the SVP and Simonneta Sommaruga of the SP. Several candidates applied for both vacancies.

After lengthy procedures within the cantons, the party at the national level and in the parliamentary groups, two candidates remained for each party. The SP wants a woman. That in itself is not remarkable these days. However, the new canton of Jura (since 1979) may get a ministerial post for the first time or canton Basel-Stadt for only the third time since 1848!

7 December 2022

Albert Rösti (SVP) from Bern and Elisabeth Baume-Schneider (SP) from the Jura, an outsider, have been elected on 7 December. Thus, the canton of Jura, founded in 1979, is represented in the Federal Council for the first time in its history.

With the election of Elisabeth Baume-Schneider from the French-speaking Jura, the German-speaking part of Switzerland no longer forms the majority in the Federal Council, as it now has four members from Latin (Tessin and Romandie) Switzerland.

Moreover, the Nationalrat has recently appointed as its president Martin Candinas from Ilanz, a Romansh-speaking (Surselvan) region (Ilanz, canton of Graubünden).


Who the new ministers will be is not the subject of this contribution, and the outcome of the decisive votes in parliament on 7 December is irrelevant from this perspective.

The individual scrutiny of candidates, the structures, procedures and the political system are relevant. They are the fundament of the prosperity, stability, cohesion, state of law and (social) security of the country and its cantons and communes.

This system was created in a long process due to the French era (1798-1813), with centuries of cooperation, (armed) conflicts, different economic and geographical orientations and interests, experiences, statesmanship, pragmatism and willingness to compromise.

The political system is virtually immune to the delusion of the day, thanks to its federal, decentralised, bottom-up concept and direct democracy. This system is, therefore, incompatible with the monetary, democratic and (too) often megalomaniacal political system of the European Union.

The appointment procedure of EU-‘ministers’, ‘presidents’ and other bureaucrats, the often illegal transfer of powers to the European Union and its institutions (e.g. the ECB), and the ongoing centralisation already preclude membership of the European Union.

The European Union should join the Swiss Confederation, not vice versa. Switzerland demonstrates the maximum possible integration of a country with four languages, cultures and identities.

(Source: A. Vatter, Der Bundesrat, Basel 2020).