Constitution and Democracy

Bern, Bundeshaus. Photo/Foto: TES.

The political system of Switzerland

The political system of Switzerland is considered a particular case among modern democracies. The origin of this lies in a multitude of languages, relatively independent cantons, and historical development. These circumstances have led to the emergence of a political system characterised by far-reaching federalism, a direct democracy, striving for compromise and participating citizens and highly developed elements of horizontal and vertical power-sharing.

In no other country in the world do citizens and cantons have such a significant and direct influence on the federal political decision-making level as in Switzerland. The state does not have a presidential system, as in America or France, nor a simple parliamentary system with proportional representation, as in the Netherlands. The federal political system is broadly structured as follows. The National Council (Nationalrat, 200 seats) is based on votes of Swiss citizens aged 18 or older and proportional representation. The Council of States (Ständerat, 46 seats) is the representation of the 26 (semi) cantons and is elected by the same citizens per canton. Both institutes are the parliament (Bundesversammlung). The latter chooses the executive, the government, for four years.

The seven members of the government (the Federal Council) are elected with the broadest possible approval by the parliament for a period of four years. The consensus starts at the top. The government always acts as a political unity (even if a member disagrees) and winners and losers of elections are (proportionally) represented in the government. There is just as much talk, discussion, and consultation until there is agreement on a position (even if one agrees to disagree), which is presented to the parliament which has the final say. The parliament can and sometimes does disagree with the government. Each member of the government heads a federal department (there are thus seven) and one member acts as head of state. The parliament also elects the Federal Chancellor. The 26 (semi) cantons have the same voting rights in the Council of States. The absolute majority applies in the Council of States and the National Council.

As one of the first Republican (male) democracies in Europe and as the first modern federal state, the country already played a pioneering role in the nineteenth century, although the participation of women was introduced late (but earlier at cantonal level). The democratic system is neither purely parliamentary nor purely presidential. The direct control of the citizens, the so-called direct democracy, plays an important role. In the course of globalisation and Europeanisation, the importance of the nation-state has diminished with the transfer of powers. That also leads to fewer opportunities for citizens and local authorities to exert influence, legitimacy decreases and the proportion of dissatisfied, politically disillusioned and protest voters increases.

Direct democracy does not always give the right or desired results, but the system never fails. The establishment respects democracy, the rule of law and citizens’ decisions, there is relatively little corruption, and the economy is innovative, competitive and international. The Swiss system is not perfect, but the country respects its citizens and the rule of law. The Swiss may not be “le peuple le plus heureux du monde” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762 or the United Nations, 2015), but the system and institutions function rather well. (Source: A. Vatter, Das politische System der Schweiz, Baden-Baden, 2016).