Map of the languages in Switzerland. Photo:Tschubby

The Federal Multilingual State

Switzerland is the second oldest federal-state after the United States of America. The federal constitution of 1848 was closely modelled on that of the USA (written in 1787). The cantons delegated some of their sovereignty to the federal level in 1848.

The cantons

Most cantons have a long history, dating back to the Middle Ages. The canton of Jura (1979) is a twentieth-century creation, following a long historical path from the Prince-Bishopric of Basel (until 1792-98), the Napoleonic creations (1798-1813) and the canton of Bern (1815-1979).

The Swiss Confederation consists of 26 cantons. The cantons Geneva (Genève), Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel (Neuenburg) are French-speaking, Valais (Wallis), Berne (Bern) and Fribourg (Freiburg) are bilingual, Ticino is Italian-speaking, Graubünden (Grisons) is trilingual (German-Romansh-Italian), and Aargau, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Zürich, Schaffhausen, Thurgau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden, Sankt-Gallen, Nidwalden, Uri, Glarus, Solothurn, Lucerne, Obwalden, Züg, Schwyz are German-speaking.

There are six demi-cantons: Obwalden and Nidwalden, Protestant Appenzell Ausserrhoden and catholic Appenzell Innerrhoden (1597) and Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft (1833). The demi-cantons have only one seat in the Council of States instead of two.

The 26 cantons have a high degree of independence. Each canton has its own constitution and its parliament/assembly of citizens, government and courts.

About 2200 communes exist at the local level, the smallest political units of the country. The level of autonomy is determined by the individual cantons and varies from place to place.

Subsidiarity, Direct Democracy and the Federal level

How to rule such a divided country? The secret is not just the four-yearly direct election of the 200 members of the National Council (Nationalrat) and the 46 members of the Council of States (Ständerat).

The answer entails decentralization, direct democracy, constitutional recognition of languages and cultures and transparent public discussions encouraged by grass-root referendums and popular initiatives.

This concept leads to good governance and the commitment of the citizens. It is not, however, the only reason for its (democratic) and multicultural success.

Switzerland is a small country with approximately 8 400 000 million inhabitants (about 20% are foreigners). Good education, a well-developed civil society and legal system, a broad range of media services, a longstanding democratic tradition, the absence of a dominant central political power, and a robust social, monetary and economic system.

The country is neither immune to nor excluded from (global and European) challenges, as history shows. Still, the citizens are always there to check and double-check the federal, cantonal and local rulers and their follies, corruption and clientele systems.

(Source: The Swiss Confederation. A Brief Guide. Bern 2021).