Constitution and Democracy

Palais Fédéral, Nationalrat/Conseil Fédéral. Photo/Foto: parlement.ch

The National Council

Definition

The National Council or Nationalrat (Volkskammer, Erste Kammer, Grosse Kammer) is the representation of the people in the parliamentary system.

It has powers identical to those of the Council of States (discussed in the previous contribution). The two hundred seats are distributed based on the proportionality of the votes obtained in the elections that take place every four years.

Seats

The twenty-six cantons are the constituencies. The number of their inhabitants is decisive for their number of seats. The smallest cantons have one seat (Appenzell Innerrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Uri, Glarus, Obwalden, Nidwalden, the largest cantons thirty-five (Zürich), twenty-four (Bern) and nineteen (Vaud). The remaining cantons between two (Jura) and sixteen (Aargau) seats.

Citizens vote for political parties, which then form alliances in parliament. The relation with the government or Federal Council (Bundesrat, Conseil fédéral) has already been discussed in a previous article.

Powers

This contribution focuses in particular on the political powers of the National Council (and thus the Council of States).

The National Council has several possibilities within the legislative and supervisory processes:

the parliamentary initiative, parlamentarische Initiatieve (initiating a law),

the motion, Motion (forcing the government to draft a law),

the postulate, Postulat (asking the government to examine whether a new law should be drafted or measures taken),

Interpellation and questions, einfache Anfrage (requesting information about documents or (international and European) developments and issues.

These instruments are often (parliamentary initiative, motion) or less frequently (question, postulate) applied. However, they always play a role in the communication, information, and prioritisation between the National Council and the government.

One political party makes more use of, for example, the question, the other more of the motion, or the parliamentarian initiative, also depending on current affairs (and approaching elections).

In addition, the Parliament (and the Council of States) exercise(s) financial control in two commissions and in special (serious) cases by the Enquete Commission of the Parliament i.e. PUK (Parliamentarische Untersuchungs Kommission).

Functioning

The National Council (and the Council of States) must always remain in close and direct contact with the cantons, (social and economic) interest groups, and the citizens.

The National Council occupies a very independent and strong position vis-à-vis the government, because the government can never dissolve the Council.

The annual election of a prime minister/primus (a) inter pares by both chambers in a joint session also prevents political opportunism and concentration of power.

The representation of the people and democracy live up to their names.