The political System of Switzerland

Switzerland’s direct democracy and federalist tradition are unique and the Swiss political system can often be hard to explain to a citizen of another country, for whom it seems unthinkable for a country not to be led by a president or prime minister.



A “nation by consensus”

Switzerland does not have a single language or culture, but has been described as a “Willensnation” – a nation formed by consensus. The roots of Swiss identity lie in a common history, in shared myths and in the freedoms of grassroots democracy and the federalist tradition. Thus Switzerland has evolved politically into a “special case” in Europe and the world. The different cultures, religions and social minorities which make up Switzerland have led to a unique political system, with the accent on federalism, a wide-ranging right to participate in the political process, a foreign policy based on neutrality and domestic politics based on consensus.


Special features of Switzerland

Switzerland differs significantly from other democracies:

  • Direct democracy: the people can directly influence the activities of government through initiatives and referenda.
  • Federalism: in the Swiss Confederation, constitutional authority rests with the people themselves and the cantons, which retain all functions not directly assigned by the Constitution to the Swiss Confederation.
  • Consociational democracy: the “cantonal majority” rule means that small cantons carry equal weight to big ones.

       The Swiss Confederation explained in brief



The Government: People and Parliament

The legislature consists of the National Council (representing the people, with 200 deputies) and the Council of States (representing the cantons, with 46 deputies). Together these two bodies make up the Federal Assembly. The executive is the Federal Council, a collegiate authority consisting of seven members, each with equal rights, who are elected by the Federal Assembly. The Federal Council, in turn, elects one of its members to serve as Federal President for a one-year term of office. This “primus inter pares” then chairs the weekly sessions of the Federal Council, but has no special rights over fellow-members. The supreme organ of the judiciary is the Federal Supreme Court, based in Lausanne. However, political power in the country rests with Parliament and the people, rather than the Federal Council. The people play a quite direct and effective part in political life through referenda, and, by gathering the required number of signatures, can intervene in political affairs at any time.

The Federal Assembly


Referenda and elections

The Swiss electorate has at least four opportunities each year to vote on national proposals. Parliament is re-elected every four years, and there are also cantonal referenda and elections. Many foreign politicians are mystified that the Swiss actually vote in favour of tax rises when necessary and are amazed at the political maturity of the Swiss voting public. In the light of the very rapid development of information and communication technology, the Federal Chancellery has been pursuing a project since 1998 to allow political rights to be exercised by electronic means. Working with the pilot cantons of Neuchâtel and Zurich, it has tested systems of casting votes electronically. Now many cantons are in the process of introducing e-voting, which will make it much easier for Swiss citizens abroad to cast their votes and will facilitate political involvement overall. 



Democracy: The Swiss political system

The portal explains in plain and simple language complex terms like democracy, concordance and political participation.


Explore Switzerland

Summer 17


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