Constitution and Democracy

Bundeshaus Bern, Raum des Bundesrates. Foto/Photo:

The Federal Council

This article highlights the composition of the Federal Council. Subsequent contributions 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 the powers that have not been transferred to the cantons. (Art. 3, 43-50). The federal administration has only around 38 000 civil servants on a population of more than eight million.

The federal powers increased considerably since 1945, each time approved by an obligatory referendum when it concerns 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 and dissolve parliament.

The classic distinction between government and opposition does not exist. Furthermore, the 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, eventually, 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 of 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, 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, until 1891 even the only party.

Because of the system of the absolute majority in each 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, 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.

It introduced the so-called Konkordanzsystem and the Zauberformel (the magic formula). The government consists of a fixed division of seven members of the four largest parties in a division of 2:2:2:1 representatives 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  have two seats: 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 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: