Bundeshaus, Sitzungszimmer des Bundesrates. Foto/Photo: www.admin.ch

Europe’s oldest democracy has a new government

On 13 December, Europe’s oldest democracy with universal suffrage (for men) elected the world’s most stable and oldest government with seven ministers (Bundesrat or Bundesratin). The appointment procedure for these seven ministers is also exceptional.

The powers, the number (seven) of ministers, the term of office of the national government, the Federal Council (Bundesrat/Conseil fédéral), and its relationship with the two chambers of Parliament, the National Council (Nationalrat/ Conseil national) and the Council of States (Ständerat/Conseil d’Etats), and the relationship with the (sovereign) cantons and their governments and parliaments are laid down in the federal Constitution.

Appointment of members of the government

The two chambers of Parliament elect or confirm each individual minister’s next term of office in a joint session (United Federal Assembly), whereby an absolute majority is required.

Any Swiss citizen can stand for election and is eligible for this office. This corresponds to the militia system and the citizen as a politician/sovereign, which always has the last (mandatory and optional referendum) and sometimes even the first word (popular initiative).

In practice, however, the political parties nominate the candidates for ministerial office according to the magic formula (Zauberformel/formule magique). Since 1959, the four largest parties have formed the government based on a distribution according to the number of votes obtained in national elections.

This division serves to form a government as broad as possible. Swiss democracy provides for compromises and consultations with political parties and their constituencies before a decision is made.

Today, the Conservatives (SVP) have two seats, the Liberals (FDP) two, the Social Democrats (SP) two and the Centre (Mitte)one. This ratio reflects the results of recent national elections, although the rise of the Green parties may lead to a change.

A change in these proportions means a political earthquake, which is therefore rare. New parties or the rise or fall of existing parties must be sustained over a more extended period before the political composition of the government is changed.

Cantons and municipalities

Cantonal governments and municipal councils (always up to 5-7 people) are elected by the people based on an absolute majority per candidate. The parliaments in the cantons and communes are elected by proportional representation.

This is also a strength of the system: governments are based on an absolute majority per candidate, while parliaments are chosen by proportional representation. Only the Council of States is elected with an absolute majority per candidate.

The first Federal Council was elected on 16 November 1848. Photo: www.admin.ch

The seven wise men

The government is also known as “Les sept sages” (the seven wise men/women). The quality, integrity and high level of government are generally guaranteed, even if the choice of ministers remains a political and human activity and not all choices fulfil their expectations.

Before nomination by the parties, there is an extensive and decentralised selection process that considers various criteria. Ultimately, the party leadership decides who is eligible for nomination, usually one to a maximum of three candidates. They strive for the absolute majority in Parliament. The procedure in Parliament is strictly prescribed and involves several rounds of voting until a candidate receives the absolute majority of the 246 votes in the United Parliament.

The vote on a new government in the united session of Parliament. Photo: www.admin.ch 

The seven Federal Councillors of the Federal Council are elected for a term of office of four years. Parliament cannot dismiss them (or the government) prematurely; on the other hand, the Federal Council cannot dissolve Parliament. Federal Councillors can resign voluntarily or die prematurely within these four years, which is rare. Parliament then appoints a new member of the Federal Council from the same party using the same procedure.

13 December 2023

On 13 December, Parliament elected or confirmed a government following the new elections to the national Parliament on 22 October 2023. Due to the resignation of a Social Democrat minister, a new Social Democrat minister was appointed. The choice fell on the candidate from the canton of Basel-Stadt. The remaining six ministers were reappointed for a four-year term of office according to the distribution of the magic formula.

Basel, 13 December 2023, after the appointment of ‘her’ federal councillor. 

Despite its great economic and strategic importance, the Canton of Basel-Stadt (Canton of Basel until 1833) has not been represented in the federal government since 1848, except for two ministers.

However, the canton played a prominent political role in 1648  (Peace of Westphalia) and in the Directorium of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803).

Johann Wettstein (1594-1666) was the most important diplomat of the Swiss Confederation in 1648 (the (formal) recognition of the Swiss Confederation of 13 cantons as a sovereign state).

Peter Ochs (1752-1821) was a member of the Directorium of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803), which was modelled on the French model.

Peter Ochs from Basel (1752-1821), 1799. Unknown artist. Member of the Directorium of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803), a kind of forerunner of today’s Bundesrat. Photo: Wikipedia

Although the parties nominate the candidates, Parliament is free to choose. It happens that “outsiders” (who were not nominated by the party) receive the most votes and not the “party soldiers”. On 13 December, a candidate from the Green Party also tried unsuccessfully to get the majority of votes. The current distribution of the magic formula is (still) intact. However, the number of votes achieved in the re-election is a judgement on the functioning of the minister.

Once the new Federal Council, mainly the old Federal Council, has been confirmed, the ministerial posts are allocated to one of the seven departments. This issue is settled between the members of the Federal Council.


This simplified description of the election and appointment of a new Federal Council does not go into the “political games” between and within the political parties, which also play an important role in Switzerland.

However, the constitutional foundations (number of (seven) ministers and departments, collegiality and departmental principle), unwritten parliamentary law (magic formula and concordance principle), federal organisation, direct democracy and the militia system are guarantees of adequate leadership at the national level, although polarisation does not stop at the Swiss border.

The other important principle, collegiality, is not always self-evident in this heterogeneous government (e.g. in terms of language, canton, and ideology) and is sometimes subject to tensions. However, direct democracy and the pursuit of compromise and consultation are good outlets for social discussions and political differences of opinion.

Due to the principle of collegiality, ministers speak to the outside world with one voice (in theory). However, this does not rule out differences of opinion. For example, citizens, interest groupings and politicians regularly organise a referendum against a decision or law by ministers of their party. A popular initiative can also be directed against the government’s and its minister’s policy.

The system also has its weaknesses. New parties, such as the Greens, must wait a long time to get a seat in the government. In addition, the number of seven ministries is modelled on the situation in 1848, which is why the reform discussions focus, amongst other issues, on increasing the number of ministers and departments.

The principle and functioning of the Federal Council are not called into question. Therefore, the authors of the 1848 Constitution are the real “wise men”.

They drew on government practice in several cantons before 1798 and during the Regeneration (1830), the Directorium (1795-1799) of the French Revolution and the Directorium in the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803).

The Directorium of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) was one of the sources of inspiration for the Federal Council in the Constitution of 1848. 

It symbolises Switzerland, an innovative and open country that combines the old with the new without neglecting its valuable heritage.

(Source: A. Vattel, der Bundesrat, Zurich. 2020; G. Malinverni, M. Hottelier, M. Hertig Randall, A. Flückiger, Droit constitutionnel suisse, Volume I, L’Etat, Bern 2021).