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The Swiss Political System and Local Government

von Michael Sell (Autor:in) Meike Gugel (Autor:in)
Hausarbeit 2003 19 Seiten



(Meike Gugel; Michael Sell)

(Michael Sell)

(Michael Sell)
3.1 Executive Power
3.2 Legislative Power
3.3 Judicial Power
3.4 Federalism
3.5 Direct democracy
3.5.1 The Popular Initiative
3.5.2 Obligatory and Optional Referenda
3.6 Electoral system

(Meike Gugel)
4.1 The development of the communes in Switzerland
4.2 Legal framework for the communes
4.3 Political system of the communes
4.3.1 The legislative body
4.3.2. The executive body
4.4 Responsibility of communes

(Meike Gugel; Michael Sell)


List of Tables

1. The Swiss federal system and the executive, legislative and judicial powers at each level

2. The main powers of the federation, the cantons and the communes

3. The distribution of seats by cantons


Switzerland is one of the smallest, oldest and most complex democratic federal states. Local political structure is far more important in Switzerland than in the centralized polities of most modern European countries, given the historically decentralized nature of the Swiss system (see Hass, J.K. 1999: 1067). “Thus the Swiss municipal organisation has proved to be extremely stable in comparison to other countries. They strongly vary in size and the majority are very small. Between 1848 and 1998 the number of municipalities was reduced only from 3204 to 2914 “(see Ladner, A. 1991: 5-6).

In this paper, the focus will be on the local government in Switzerland. But before we come to this part, we think it is necessary to give an overall view of Switzerland in general and its political system. Here, we will also introduce the issue of direct democracy in Switzerland, as we think it is a characteristic political element within the Swiss democracy and also plays an important role on the communal and local level. Then we will describe the local level in detail. This will include a short summary about the development of the Swiss communes in history, the role of the communes given by the Swiss constitution, the structure and organization of communes and the responsibilities they have. Finally, we will comment our findings and draw conclusions about the grade of decentralization and what follows from this for the Swiss democracy.


Located in central-western Europe, Switzerland is formally a federal republic consisting of 20 cantons and six half-cantons held together by the confederation (see Hass J.K. 1999: 1066; Frankland, E.G. 2002: 165). The first cantons were founded in 1291 by Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden (see Tschäni, H. 1967: 19). All attempts for more centralism and extreme federalism were stopped by a new constitution in 1848. Revised in 1874, the constitution of 1848 contained most of the organizational framework of today`s polity. Thus the Swiss Federation was founded in 1848 and is the world`s second-oldest federal union, after the United States (see Linder, W. 1994: 8; Frankland, E.G. 2002: 165).

Switzerland has a population of 7.2 million and a growth rate of approximately 0.6%. Ethnically, Switzerland is 65% German, 18% French, 10% Italian, 1% Romansch, and 6% other. There are four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansch.

Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are the two most important religions: 47% are Protestants and 43% are Roman Catholics (see Hass J.K. 1999: 1066; Frankland, E.G. 2002: 165).

The two main parts of Switzerlands` economy are services and industry. Banking and financial services are the most important branches of Swiss service industry. Other important sectors include biotechnical research and manufactures, mechanical engineering and pharmaceutical industry (see Hass J.K. 1999: 1066).


The Swiss political system is characterized by its non-parliamentary, federal aspect and by its direct democracy (see Gruner, E. 1978, 339-359). First of all, we will consider the separation of powers. After this we will shortly describe the Swiss system of federalism, which is highly federalised and of democratic nature. Furthermore we will introduce issues of the Swiss direct democracy and the Swiss Electoral system.


Unlike other European democracies, Switzerland`s executive is run not by a single individual but by the seven-member Federal Council (Bundesrat). The members of the Bundesrat are chosen as individuals at the beginning of a new legislative period by a joint session of parliament. In every year, one member of the Bundesrat is elected by a joint session of parliament to the position of Bundespräsident, or President of the Swiss Conferation (see Schumann 1971: 43). The Bundespräsident is both head of state and chair of the executive branch; however, this position is essentially formal, without great power. Generally, the Bundespräsident acts more as an organizer and coordinator of the Bundesrat, where according to the constitution supreme decision-making power lies, than as a prominent central figure setting policy agendas. Decision making in the executive is collegial; the Bundesrat meets 90 times a year in order to consider issues of importance and make decisions. All decisions are arrived at by discussion and majority vote within the Bundesrat (see Hass J.K. 1999: 1066-1067).

The seven members of the Federal Council are representatives of four different political parties. Since 1959, the Federal Assembly has chosen members for the Bundesrat according to a 2-2-2-1 multiple ratio: two representatives from the three largest parties in parliament and one Bundesrat member chosen from the fourth-largest party. This system gives all parties, especially the stronger ones (regardless of ideological orientation) the possibility of being heard when discussing executive and policy matters. An unwritten law requires that at least two members should come from French- or Italian-speaking regions. Each Bundesrat member heads one of the seven ministries (called departments): Foreign Affairs; Interior; Justice and Police; Public Economy; Transport, Communication and Energy. The federal administration is located for the most part in Bern (see Linder, W. 1994: 10).


The Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung), a bicameral body, is the supreme political organization of the country, the ultimate authority for all decisions and issues except for those which are explicitly delegated to the individual cantons or to the population as a whole. The two houses are the Council of the States (Ständerat) and the National Council (Nationalrat). Both chambers have equal power. Bills can be introduced in both chambers, and both the chambers have the possibility to veto bills which were passed by the other one. Also, in spite of the fact that national political power rests with the Federal Assembly, legislative authority is circumscribed by the possibility or obligation to call national referenda. Each year, there usually take place between 15 and 20 referenda anywhere in Switzerland, both at the national and the cantonal levels.

The National Council has 200 members who serve four-year terms in office. Each canton sends a number of delegates. The exact number depends on the relative population of the cantons, although a canton is entitled to at least one seat, no matter how small its population is. The Council of State has 46 members, two from each canton. A simple majority confirms the passing of the bill; if the other house passes the bill, then it is sent the Federal Council for confirmation. Thus for the purpose of passing laws, the two houses work independently but for the same goal. In certain instances the two houses meet in joint session (see Hass J.K. 1999: 1066-1067).


The judicial system is a combination of the canton-level and centralized administrative structures. The highest court of the state is the Federal Tribunal (Bundesgericht), which is composed of 30 individuals chosen by the National Assembly for six-year terms (see Hass J.K. 1999: 1066-1067). The seat of the Court is located in the French part of Switzerland, in Lausanne. The national court decides about conflicts between the federation and the cantons. It is empowered to review legislative and executive acts of the cantons and guarantees the constitutional rights of the citizens. However, the Court does not have the power, either directly or by implications, to rule on the constitutionality of federal laws (see Linder, W. 1994: 10).

Table 1: The Swiss federal system and the executive, legislative and judicial powers at each

level (see Linder, W. 1994: 9)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Switzerland is composed of 20 cantons and six half cantons, which in turn, are made up of about 2,900 communes (Gemeinden). Both the cantons and their constituent communes enjoy wide independence from the central government (Bundesrat), seated in Bern. Each canton and half-canton has its own constitution and is free to choose its own form of government and electoral system, as long as these are consistent with democratic principles and the federal Constitution. In 1978, the voters in the French-speaking part of canton Bern voted in favour of self-government. As result, the canton of Jura was established in 1979.

The powers and responsibilies of the cantons are considerable. The cultural diversity of the Swiss cantons and their claims for autonomy set narrow limits to central authority (see Linder, W. 1994: 40). Each canton has its own taxing authority, law- enforcement facilities, and independent school system. For example, Zurich and other German-speaking cantons have decided to make English, not French, the second language of instruction in their primary schools. The education officials of French-speaking cantons see their move as a threat to Swiss national identity.



ISBN (eBook)
477 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Konstanz – Faculty for Management Studies
2003 (November)
1,3 (A)
Swiss Political System Local Government Comparative Local Government



Titel: The Swiss Political System and Local Government