Constitution and Democracy

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

The National Council

The National Council or Nationalrat (Volkskammer, Erste Kammer, Grosse Kammer) is the representation of the people in the parliamentary system. It has identical powers to 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. The twenty-six cantons are the constituencies. The number of inhabitants is decisive for the number of seats. The smallest cantons have one seat (Appenzell Innerrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Uri, Glarus, Obwalden, Nidwalden, the largest cantons thirty-five (Zurich), twenty-four (Bern) and nineteen (Vaud). The remaining cantons between the two (Jura) and sixteen (Aargau) seats. 

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

This contribution focuses in particular on the instruments available to the National Council (and thus the Council of States). The National Council has several possibilities in the legislative and supervisory process: 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. 

The instruments are often applied (parliamentary initiative, motion) or less frequently (question, postulate). However, they all play a role in communication, information, and priority setting 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 financial control in two commissions and in special (serious) cases by the Enquete Commission of the Parliament, PUK (Parliamentarische Untersuchungs Kommission).

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. Direct democracy is always looming and they always have the last say as the real sovereign.

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 joined session also prevents political opportunism and concentration of power.

In Switzerland, there is a high-quality parliamentary debate and, because of direct democracy, intensive public debate. The representation of the people and democracy live up to their names. That cannot be said of each parliament in the EU.

This House, too, has its shortcomings and flaws. But the system functions, sometimes (too) slowly, but democratically and at a high level.