Constitution and Democracy

Bundeshaus Bern, Raum des Bundesrates. Foto/Photo:

The Federal Council

The parliamentary system consists of two chambers. This article focuses on the Council of States or Ständerat (Kantonskammer, Zweite Kammer, Kleine Kammer, Senate, Chambre de réflexion). The other chamber, the National Council, Nationalrat  (or Volkskammer, Erste Kammer, Grosse Kammer) will be discussed in the next article.

This contribution gives a brief review of the history, role, and place in the constitutional system and the functioning of the Council of States.


It was not self-evident in 1848 that the Council of States would be created. It owes its existence in particular to the  “Sonderbundskrieg” of 1847.

In this last (civil) war (Sonderbundskrieg) on Swiss territory, Catholic-conservatives from predominantly rural cantons (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Wallis, Zug. Lucerne, and Fribourg) opposed the liberal (which is different from democratic) Protestant trading and industrial cantons (led mainly by Bern, Basel, and Zurich) of the Eidgenossenschaft (Vaud and Neuchâtel were neutral).

Switzerland was not yet the service and industrial nation that it would become in the decades after 1848. Agriculture was opposed to trade, Catholic to Protestant, (rural) conservative to (urban) liberal.

This Swiss civil war caused a few casualties and numbered even fewer days of warfare, mainly due to the reconciliatory attitude of the victors.

The insight grew that the losers – the minority of (Catholic) rural cantons – also needed to have a real voice in the confederation. The three languages — German, French and Italian — were officially recognised. Romansh became the fourth language in 1938.

The federal counterweight to the federal parliament was the Council of States, chosen by the (male) inhabitants of each canton. There were 44 seats for the twenty-five cantons: two seats for the nineteen cantons and six seats for the six half cantons. The new canton of Jura has two seats since 1979, bringing the total of seats to 46.


Men and women elect the Council of States according to the electoral law of each canton (nowadays based on the Majority system (Majorzsystem (the absolute majority wins) except in Vaud and Neuchâtel, where the proportionality system (Proporzsystem, the proportionality of the votes) prevails.

The people vote on members of political parties, mostly the same as the parties in elections for the National Council. The Council of States is formally based on the “Milizsystem” with half-time politicians.

The current trend, however, is towards more full-time politicians.  Each canton has the same vote regardless of religion, number of inhabitants, or economic relevance.

The two chambers

The Council of States has exactly the same powers as the National Council.

The Council of States is indeed the federal counterpart of the federal representative National Council. Whether the Council of States fulfills the expectations of the founders in political life is another question, to be discussed in subsequent articles.

The Council of States meets separately from the National Council (except when electing the government, federal judges/administrators, and, in times of war, the Supreme Commander (General) of the armed forces).

Both bodies meet quarterly in the Federal Palace (Bundeshaus / Palais fédéral) in Bern. Federal laws are not subject to constitutional review by the (highest) judge.

The parliamentary instruments of the Council of States are discussed in the article on the National Council because they are identical.

Each body has nine committees. They work together with the Federal Council, experts, departments and NGO’s and two committees of (financial) supervision.

Both bodies elect a president and vice-president for a maximum period of one year, reflecting the consistent and successful choice in the Swiss Constitution to control the concentration of power.

The Council of States can be the initiator of legislation or can be the first to deal with a proposal or decision of the Government.

The Council of States is then the “Erstrat” (first council) , but “Zweitrat” (second council) when the National Council is the first in this respect

The presidents of the Council of States and the National Council draw up a schedule. The Council of States has taken a small lead over the National Council and is Erstrat in 55% of the cases (many hundreds a year).

Both chambers must fully agree on every letter and comma. In case of disagreement, there is first a “Differenzbereinigungsverfahren”, a procedure to reach an agreement within a maximum of three subsequent efforts.

They usually succeed to bridge their differences. An Einigungskonferenz is the last resort to reach an agreement when this procedure fails. Thirteen members of each body discuss, compromise, and almost always reach an agreement. It is the end of the legislation process when they fail, but this rarely happens.

The relationship with the cantons

The political relationship with the cantons, the cantonal governments, and the cantonal parliaments will be covered in future articles.

The members of the Council of States vote as independent members of a federal body without any instructions from the cantons (Instruktionsverbot).

For this reason, the Konferenz der Kantonsregierungen (KdK) was founded in 1993. The complaint was that members of the Council of States were rather independent federal politicians than representatives of the cantons..

The cantons often had too little, too late, and too limited influence in the national legislative process. The KvK proved to be an excellent remedy for this shortcoming.


The Council of States holds a prominent place in the legislative and decision-making process and the monitoring of and cooperation with the government and its (seven) departments.

The Council of States plays an equally strong or even stronger political role than the National Council. Its political importance and prestige are also reflected by the number of former members of the National Council who have a seat in the Council of States. The opposite hardly happens anymore.

This system and the Council of States have shortcomings and gap. Indisputably, however, this federal body plays vital role in the parliamentary system and in fostering the cohesion of the multicultural Swiss society.


The Federal Council


This article highlights the composition of the Federal Council. Subsequent contributions will deal with the functioning, legislative and decision-making process and working methods.

The Council

The Council (Bundesrat, Conseil fédéral, Consiglio federale, Cussegl federal) consists of seven members.

The Federal Chancellery and  Chancellor (Bundeskanzlei, Chancellerie fédérale, Cancelleria federale, Chanzlia federala) supports the Council.

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.

The status aparte

However, appearances are deceptive. In many respects, the Council differs from other traditional parliamentary or presidential systems.

Firstly, the number of seven ministers (Bundesräte/Bundesrätinnen) and ministries (Departements) is laid down in the Constitution. This number has remained unchanged since 1848.

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.

The cantons and municipalities have far-reaching powers or even autonomy in many fields, a.o. social security, education, health care and taxes.

The federal government has only those powers that have not been transferred to the cantons. (Art. 3, 43-50). The federal administration has only around 38 000 civil servants out of a population of more than eight million.

Federal powers have increased considerably since 1945, each time approved by an obligatory referendum when entailing a change of the Constitution.

The government or individual ministers cannot be dismissed by parliament. That is another peculiarity. On the other hand, the government cannot call early elections or dissolve parliament.

The classic distinction between government and opposition does not exist. Furthermore, direct democracy allows the members of governing parties to join the opposition.

Any federal legislation or decision must have the consent of both chambers of parliament and, in some cases, of the people.


Another feature is collegiality. The government, in theory, speaks out with one voice. Differences do exist but do not appear in public (Kollegialprinzip).

Consultations take as long as necessary until an agreement is reached. The compromise is another essential characteristic of the system.


The absence of a permanent Prime Minister or First Minister also reflects the equality of all members of the government.

The head of state (Bundespräsident(in), Président(e), President(e), President(a) is elected by both chambers of parliament from among the seven ministers for a maximum period of one year, becoming the  primus/prima inter pares.

The only inequality is 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 the others, including the chancellor, in order of seniority.

The magic formula

The composition of the Council is also remarkable and is even a world record. Since 1848, the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) has been a continuous member of the Council and,  until 1891, even the only party.

Due to the absolute majority system (Majorzsystem) in each constituency, for a long time the FDP had held the majority in parliament, which was elected on the basis of universal suffrage for men.

Moreover, until 1880, modern political parties did not exist. The Catholic-Conservative Party (CVP), the Socialist 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 forced the FDP to delegate power to the CVP and to appoint a CVP-minister.

In 1919, the People’s Initiative led to the proportional electoral system (Proporzsystem) 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.

Next the so-called Konkordanzsystem and the “Zauberformel” (magic formula) were introduced. The government came to consist of a fixed division of seven members from the four largest parties and divided 2:2:2:1 in representation of these parties.

After 2003, this changed into two seats for the SVP (Schweizerische Volkspartei) and one seat for the CVP (Christendemokratische Volkspartei) — a landslide by Swiss standards. The two other parties of the government, i.e.  the FDP (Freisinnig-Demokratische Partei) and the SP  (Sozialdemokratische Partei der Schweiz).

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

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


The system has its disadvantages and shortcomings, as will be discussed in other contributions.

It guarantees stability and prevents the delusion of the day, the rise of a strong man or woman, and extremist parties and, above all, it provides the fundament of the permanent search for compromise, consensus and contact with society and the citizens. (Further information: