Rathaus Gersau. Photo/foto: TES.

The Municipalities


Each canton is subdivided into municipalities. The area of a canton is the sum of these municipalities, just as Switzerland is the sum of the twenty-six cantons.

The cantons are also subdivided into districts that cover several municipalities. Unlike the municipalities, the districts are not derived from the Federal Constitution but only from the constitution of the cantons.

The municipalities have a modest place in the Constitution. Only Art. 50 recognises their existence. The cantons have full autonomy in setting up municipalities (Art. 50 (1).

The Confederation considers the municipalities’ autonomy when legislating and making decisions (Art. 50 (2). Cities and mountain areas occupy a special place in this respect (Art. 50 (3).

Organisation and powers

The organisation of municipalities differs from canton to canton. Switzerland has around 2 200 municipalities. The largest is Zürich  (c. 400 000 inhabitants), and the smallest is Corripo (canton of Tessin) with 20 inhabitants. Scuol (canton of Graubünden) is the largest municipality, and Rivaz (Vaud) is the smallest.

The municipalities do the tasks the cantons do not perform, following the principle of subsidiarity by which the three layers of Swiss constitutional law function: federal, cantonal and municipal (Art. 3 and Art. 50 Federal Constitution).

In their constitutions, the cantons define their legal personality, government, administration, democratic representation and election system. These are the creations of the cantons; as such, they enjoy the autonomy each canton grants them.

Cantonal courts of law exist for disputes between municipalities and cantons. The Supreme Court (Bundesgericht) in Lausanne is the highest appeal body.

Local authorities may sometimes refer cases directly to the Supreme Court. Cantonal courts, in two instances, adjudicate disputes between citizens and municipalities.

Types of municipalities.

The resident or political municipality (Einwohnergemeinde or politische Gemeinde) includes all persons in the municipality. The territorial element determines the membership of the municipality. This municipality plays the most important role in state law. All voters exercise their political rights in their municipality’s federal, cantonal and communal affairs (Federal Constitution 39-2/4). Citizenship of the municipality is the basis and condition for acquiring citizenship of the canton and, thus, Swiss citizenship (Federal Constitution 37-1).

Half of the cantons also have a citizens’ municipality (Bürgergemeinde). It comprises all persons holding citizenship of the municipality. It is a community of persons.

All cantons have a church community (Kirchgemeinde) for everyone who is a particular church member.

Special congregations (Spezialgemeinden) are also charged with carrying out certain tasks in some cantons.

The representation of the citizens

The essential democratic pillars of each municipality are direct democracy and the parliaments elected by the citizens or the assembly of citizens.

Each cantonal constitution is based on the principle of subsidiarity and the final say of the citizens (direct democracy).

The assembly of citizens

Most municipalities do not have a parliament but a citizens’ assembly. The names vary from canton to canton: Gemeindeversammlung, Bürgerversammlung, offene Dorfgemeinde, Assemblea communale in seduta pubblica, Conseil général, Urversammlung, Assemblée communale. These are the legislative and supreme bodies of the municipalities.

Assemblies meet several times a year or at the request of citizens or the municipal government. At these meetings, an agenda is put to the vote. Decisions are taken based on a majority vote by raising hands or (if requested) by a secret ballot vote.

Hand-raising originates from the medieval tradition of direct democracy in the communes or Landsgemeinde. It is still the only method in the cantons Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden.

The larger municipalities cannot hold meetings for all citizens but have a representative system in place. Everyone has the right to come and to vote, but in practice, as in any association, foundation or political organisation, only a small number of citizens actively participate.

Moreover, municipal law typically stipulates a secret ballot vote for essential decisions.

In most small(er) municipalities of German-speaking Switzerland and some French-speaking cantons, the citizens also elect the municipal government and the praesidium.


Nearly all larger towns and municipalities have a directly elected parliament or municipal council (Gemeindeparlament, Grosser Gemeinderat, Conseil général, Einwohnerrat, Consiglio comunale, Conseil communal, Generalrat, Conseil municipal).

In Neuchâtel and Geneva, this is compulsory for all municipalities; in Vaud from 1 000 inhabitants, and in Tessin from 5 000 inhabitants or more.

The largest Swiss municipalities without a parliament are Solothurn and Rapperswil-Jona (canton St. Gall).

The municipal government

The citizens also directly elect the municipal government (the executive). Its name varies from canton to canton: Stadtrat, Gemeinderat, administratiever Rat, Bezirksrat, Rat, Gemeindevorstand, Gemeindebehörde, Municipio, Municipalité, Conseil communal, Conseil adminitratif.

Smaller municipalities often delegate governmental powers to one elected citizen (Stadtpräsident, Gemeindepräsident, Gemeindeammam, Syndic, Maire, Sindaco).

The administration is as large as the municipality needs, and the canton permits (Art. 50 (1).

The system of militia (Milizsystem) also applies to elected officials or politicians at the municipal level.

Only some functions receive a salary, such as the mayor in the larger municipalities or the capacity of Stadtpräsident, Gemeindepräsident, Gemeindeammam, Syndic, Maire, Sindaco.

(Source: A. Auer, Staatsrecht der schweizerischen Kantone, Bern 2016).