Constitution and Democracy

Bundeshaus Bern, Raum des Bundesrates. Foto/Photo:

The Federal Council

This article highlights the composition of the Federal Council of Switzerland. Subsequent contributions deal with its functioning, the legislative and decision-making process and working methods. The Council (Bundesrat, Conseil fédéral, Consiglio federale, Cussegl federal) is made up of seven members, as laid down in the Constitution of 1848. The Federal Chancellery (Bundeskanzlei, Chancellerie fédérale, Cancelleria federale, Chanzlia federala) supports the Council and is headed by a Chancellor. The Council and the chancellor are elected by the United Assembly of both chambers of the parliament for a period of four years after the general elections. So far, the Council does not differ fundamentally from other democracies.

However, appearances are deceptive. In many respects, the Council differs from other traditional parliamentary or presidential systems. Firstly, the number of ministers (Bundesräte/Bundesrätinnen) and ministries (Departement) is laid down in the Constitution. This number has remained unchanged since 1848. However, the number of tasks per ministry has, of course, increased enormously, particularly since 1945. The seven ministers each head a Department: the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice and Police, The Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport, the Department of Finance, the Department of Economy, Education and Research and the Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications.

Many important issues are to a large extent regulated by the cantons and municipalities, such as social security, education, health care and taxes. The Constitution expressly states that the federal government has only tasks that do not fall within the competences of cantons or municipalities. Consequently, the central federal administration has only around 35 000 civil servants out of a population of more than eight million.

A second aspect is that the government or individual ministers cannot be dismissed by parliament. On the other hand, the government cannot call early elections and dissolve parliament. The classic distinction between government and opposition does not exist. What is more, direct democracy allows members of governing parties to join the opposition. There is, of course, the principle that any federal legislation or decision must have the consent of both chambers of parliament and, possibly, of the people (the direct democracy, see previous articles).

Another feature is collegiality. The government, in theory, speaks out with one voice. Differences do exist but do not appear in public (collegiality principle). Usually, consultations take as long until there is an agreement between the members of the government. For this reason, the consensus is another essential characteristic.

The absence of a permanent Prime Minister or Head of State also reflects the equality of all members of the government. The prime minister/ head of state (Bundespräsident(in), Président(e), President(e), President(a) is elected annually by both chambers of parliament from among the seven ministers for a maximum period of one year, the primus/prima inter pares. The only inequality is by the (unwritten) protocol. In the government hall or at official meetings/photos, the president sits/stands in the middle, flanked on the right by the vice-president, and then in order of seniority.

The composition of the Council is also remarkable and there is even a world record. Since 1848, the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) has been a continuous member of the Council, until 1891 even the only party. Because of the system of the absolute majority by constituency (the Majorzsystem), this party had, for a long time, the majority in parliament, which was elected on the basis of universal suffrage for men.

Moreover, until 1880, there were no other modern parties. The Catholic-Conservative Party (CVP), the Social-Democratic Party (now the SP) and the Farmers’, Entrepreneurs’ and Citizens’ Party (BGB, now the SVP) developed after 1880-1890. Direct democracy and the introduction of the referendum in 1874 and the People’s Initiative (Volksinitiative) in 1891 also forced the FDP to delegate power to the CVP and to appoint a CVP-minister. In 1919, the People’s Initiative also led to the proportional electoral system (Proporzsystem) for the parliament based on general elections for men.  Afterwards, a second CVP- minister (1919), a BGB- minister (1929) and two SP-ministers (1943 and 1951) were elected as members of the Council.

It led to the development of the so-called Konkordanzsystem and the Zauberformul. The government consists of a fixed division of members of the four largest parties. After 2003, this changed into two seats for the SVP and one seat for the CVP, a landslide by Swiss standards. Great election victories and SVP referendums were at the root of this change. Newcomers with (great) success, such as the Green Parties, do not immediately enter government. It requires several successive electoral successes.

Other criteria in multilingual and multicultural Switzerland are language, canton and nowadays gender. There are currently four German-speaking and two French-speaking members and one Italian-speaking member of the Council.

The system has its disadvantages and shortcomings, as will be discussed in other contributions. Still, it guarantees stability, the prevention of the delusion of the day, the rise of the strong man or woman and extremist parties and, above all, it provides the fundament of the permanent search for compromise and consensus and contact with the society and the citizens. (Further information: