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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Main executive and legislative bodies


1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.2Main executive and legislative bodies

Last update: 23 June 2022

Under the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation the people are sovereign, and hence the supreme political authority. All Swiss citizens who have reached the age of 18 and are of sound mind have the right to vote and may be elected. In the canton of Glarus people have the right to vote and to be elected at cantonal and communal level at the age of 16. Foreign nationals do not have the right to vote or to be elected at federal level. In some cantons foreign nationals may vote and be elected at cantonal and/or communal level.

The people can obtain a complete or partial revision of the Federal Constitution through a popular initiative (right to initiate legislation), by collecting the signatures of 100,000 eligible voters within a period of 18 months.

All amendments of the Federal Constitution, accession to organisations for collective security or to supranational communities, and certain emergency federal acts must be put to a mandatory referendum, i.e. a popular vote must be carried out on these submissions.

The adoption of an amendment of the Federal Constitution (initiated by a popular initiative or by a mandatory referendum) requires the double majority, i.e. a popular majority (majority of valid votes nationwide) and a state majority (majority of cantons in which the voters have approved the submission).

Federal laws, certain emergency federal acts and certain international treaties must be submitted to an optional referendum. Within a period of 100 days of the official publication of the decree signatures must be collected from 50,000 eligible voters. If a vote is carried out through an optional referendum, a popular majority is sufficient to carry the vote.

There is no constitutional jurisdiction in Switzerland: the Federal Court cannot check the constitutionality of federal laws.

At cantonal level new laws and legislative amendments can also be carried out through a popular initiative. The period of time and number of signatures required for cantonal and communal popular initiatives and for optional referenda vary from canton to canton.


The Confederation

Switzerland is federal in structure and is divided into three political levels: the Confederation, cantons and communes. There is a separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers at all three levels.

The Confederation performs the tasks assigned to it by the Federal Constitution. The cantons decide what tasks they perform within the scope of their responsibilities. The Confederation undertakes only those tasks which the cantons cannot carry out alone or which require uniform regulation by the Confederation. The Confederation allows the cantons adequate sources of funding and helps ensure that they have the necessary financial means to perform their tasks. The Confederation is, moreover, responsible for foreign policy, security policy, defence, energy policy and for law-making which applies nationwide. Legislation in the sphere of civil law and civil procedural law, and of criminal law and criminal procedural law, also falls within the responsibility of the Confederation.

Bern is the federal capital: the seat of the federal government and of the national parliament is in Bern.


The parliament (legislative power)

The parliament consists of two chambers:

  • the National Council (200 seats)
  • the Council of States (46 seats)

The National Council represents the population of Switzerland as a whole. The cantons are represented in the National Council in proportion to their population. Cantons with a small population have at least one seat. The most populous canton, Zurich, provides 35 members.

The Council of States represents the 26 cantons. Regardless of its population each canton sends two representatives to the Council of States, with the exception of the six former half-cantons, which send just one each.

Both Councils act separately: all topics are dealt with successively by each Council. The Presidents of each Council determine in each case which Council will deal with a given issue first (the “first Council”). The National Council and the Council of States act together as the United Federal Assembly, if elections are to be held (e.g. Federal Council elections, elections of federal judges) or if conflicts of competence between the supreme federal authorities are to be decided.

Both Councils are elected directly by the people. In most cantons both chambers are elected on the same date. In all cantons in which more than one seat is to be distributed the distribution of seats on the National Council is carried out on the basis of proportional representation: the seats are distributed proportionate to the number of votes obtained. In the cantons with only one seat on the National Council, majority voting comes into play: whoever obtains most votes is elected. In all cantons with the exception of Jura and Neuenburg the Council of States elections are based on the majority voting system.

The members of both Councils are elected for four years and exercise their mandate on a part-time basis (militia system). The National Council and the Council of States usually meet in four ordinary sessions per year, each of three weeks. The sessions are public. Both Councils have standing committees which prepare the issues to be dealt with and file the corresponding motions at their respective Council.

As the legislature both chambers discuss all amendments to the Constitution before these are submitted to a popular vote. They also decide on the enactment, amendment or repeal of federal laws. They reach federal decisions, approve international treaties, supervise the Federal Administration, decide among others on the preliminary federal budget (amount of revenues and expenditures to be approved) and examine and approve the actual state budget.


The Federal Council (executive power)

The Federal Council has seven members. The members of the Federal Council and the Federal Chancellor are each elected by the United Federal Assembly (National Council and Council of States) for a four-year term of office. The United Federal Assembly elects the Federal President from among the seven members of the Federal Council for a one-year term. The Federal Council is the supreme governing and executive authority of the Confederation.

The Federal Chancellor heads the Federal Council’s general staff office, the Federal Chancellery.

Under the Federal Constitution (Art. 177) the principle of collegiality applies: the Federal Council reaches its decisions as a collegial body. The members of the Federal Council represent the decisions of the college even if they personally hold a minority position.

Each member of the Federal Council heads one of the seven Departments of the Federal Administration:

The primary responsibility for education lies with the cantons, which have sole responsibility for compulsory education. In the post-compulsory education sector, the Confederation and the Cantons share responsibility within the scope of their responsibilities. The duties of the Confederation in those sectors of education in which it is competent are assumed by the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER) through the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI).


The cantons

The 26 cantons (states) are sovereign, except where their sovereignty is limited by the Federal Constitution (Art. 3). The cantons exercise all rights which are not assigned to the Confederation. All cantons have the same rights of intervention at federal level. Each canton has its own constitution, its own parliament, its own government and its own courts.

The institution of the Landsgemeinde or cantonal assembly as the supreme organ of the canton remains only in the cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus. In these two cantons eligible voters gather in their main town and take decisions on cantonal matters by a raising of hands. In all other cantons eligible voters decide at the ballot box.

Cooperation between the cantons is institutionalised in various conferences. The aim of inter-cantonal cooperation is to promote cooperation between the cantons and between the Confederation and cantons in a specific area. The directors of the individual cantonal departments/directorates of the 26 cantonal governments thus coordinate their fields of activity in their own Switzerland-wide directors’ conferences. In education and culture, the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) coordinates the fields of activity of the cantons at national level. As well as national directors’ conferences for Switzerland as a whole there are also regional directors’ conferences which coordinate specific fields of activity.


The cantonal parliaments (legislative power)

The cantonal parliaments, known by different names depending on the canton (Kantonsrat, Grosser Rat, Landrat, Grand Conseil, Parlement, Gran Consiglio), are as a rule elected by the people for four years. The number of members varies greatly between the cantons, and ranges at present from 50 members in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden (one member per 300 residents) to 180 members in the canton of Zurich. In most cantons, members are elected by proportional representation: the seats are distributed proportionate to the number of votes obtained.

Members of parliament exercise their office part-time. The cantonal parliaments adopt laws and ordinances, and supervise the government and the administration and the management of the court.


The cantonal governments (executive power) 

The cantonal governments (known as the Regierungsrat, Staatsrat, Landeskommission, Conseil d’État, Gouvernement or Consiglio di Stato depending on the canton) are elected by the people in all cantons. The cantonal executive is elected for four years in most cantons, and for five years in three cantons (Fribourg, Geneva, Jura, Vaud). In Appenzell Innerrhoden the government (Landeskommission) is elected at the annual Landsgemeinde (cantonal assembly). In 25 cantons the cantonal governments are elected by majority voting, while in the canton of Ticino they are elected on the basis of proportional representation.

Depending on the canton the cantonal government comprises five or seven members, each of whom is in charge of a department or a directorate within the cantonal administration. Important areas of activity in all cantonal administrations are: construction and the environment, education, finance, justice, security, social affairs/health, economics.

The members of the cantonal governments are full-time appointees as a rule. As in the Federal Council the principle of collegiality applies in the cantonal governments.

The cantonal governments are the governing and highest executive authorities in the cantons. They represent the canton externally to the Confederation and other cantons.


The communes

The communes are the smallest political administrative units in Switzerland. The autonomy of the communes is guaranteed under the Federal Constitution (Art. 50) in accordance with cantonal law. The autonomy of the communes includes in particular the right of the communes to adopt their own standards and to manage themselves, subject to higher-level laws which take precedence. Besides the tasks assigned to the communes by the Confederation and the canton, the fields of activity of the communes and of the towns and cities vary from canton to canton. Depending on cantonal legislation the communes have their own responsibilities in the school sector and social services, in key supply and disposal services (water, electricity, gas, waste, wastewater), in local planning, construction and road maintenance, and taxes.

At national level the Association of Swiss Communes and the Swiss Union of Cities and Towns represent the interests of their members.


The communal legislatives powers

Around a fifth of all communes have their own parliament. The names of these parliaments vary. Stadtrat, Gemeinderat or Conseil communal, for instance, denote the communal legislative power in some communes, and the communal executive power in others. Other names include the Gemeindeparlament, Grosser Stadtrat, Conseil de ville, Consiglio comunale etc.

In four-fifths of all communes the voters established in the commune are responsible for decisions on communal affairs at the Communal Assembly.


The communal executive powers

The executives of the communes (Gemeinderat, Stadtrat, Conseil municipal, Conseil communal, Municipio etc.) are elected by the eligible voters established in the commune. The communal executives generally comprise three to nine members working part-time, half-time or full-time. The Communal Council is generally led by a Communal President. This office is also known by different titles (Gemeindeammann, Stadtpräsident/Stadtpräsidentin, Stadtammann, Talammann, Syndic, Maire, Sindaco etc.).

The members of the communal executives head administrative units which are structured by subject area.