Switzerland is a federal republic with a three-level political structure - the federal government, cantons and communes. The fundamental principles of the confederation's political system are power sharing, proportional representation and regional autonomy, which help to ensure peaceful co-existence of different groups while upholding the rights of minorities. In the Swiss system of direct democracy, the ultimate power lies in the hands of the people.
The Federal Government
The duties of the federal government are strictly defined and laid down in the constitution. In many areas the federal government simply legislates and supervises, leaving it to the cantons to carry out the legislation.
The Federal Council, Switzerland's government, has 7 members or councilors (ministers) who are from different regions and from four major political parties. Each year one member of the Federal Council is appointed President of the Confederation, based on a system of rotation. The Federal Council carries out its tasks through consensus decision-making. It prepares new legislation, submits legislative bills to the Parliament and enacts the ordinances that implement new laws in detail.
Switzerland is made up of 26 autonomous cantons. The Swiss constitution was designed to balance as fairly as possible the interests of the state as a whole with the interests of the individual cantons. The cantons, as federal states enjoy a high degree of freedom in their political decisions and administrative autonomy. Each canton has its own constitution and laws. On many cases, the cantonal and communal laws follow the broad outlines of federal legislation, yet still allow for particular local needs.
The communes: The smallest political division
The cantons are divided into communes. All Swiss are first and foremost citizens of a commune. It is from this status that they automatically derive citizenship of a canton and of the country as a whole. The communes, like the cantons, have their own elected administrative authorities. For some local issues they take autonomous decisions; in other cases they carry out decisions of the canton or the confederation. The areas for which they are responsible include security, education, health and transport affairs. They also register births, marriages and deaths, and collect federal, cantonal and local taxes. The details vary from canton to canton.
The Swiss Parliament represents both the cantons as well as the people. The Parliament is made up of two chambers of equal standing: the 'National Council' and the 'Council of States'.
The 'National Council' is made up of 200 representatives of the People. A proportional voting system is used for the National Council, which means the number of parliamentary seats granted to political parties is in direct proportion to the number of votes each party gets as a whole.
The 'Council of States' is made up of 46 representatives of the cantons. Each canton has 2 seats. The election of the members of the Council is the responsibility of the cantons. Regional interests are guaranteed at the central level irrespective of population size of each canton. Canton Uri with a population of 35,000 has the same 'voice' as canton Zurich (population 1.3 million people).
Members of the parliament are not full time politicians, but also have another occupation, from where they earn their income. This 'Militia' characteristic of the Swiss Parliament is rooted in the understanding that serving the state is a citizen's duty. The parliament convenes for four three-week sessions every year and decides on a wide variety of business.
Direct Democracy and the Citizens
As in all democratic countries, in Switzerland, the citizens elect representatives to act on their behalf. But Switzerland gives its citizens the chance to take a direct part in decision-making as well. Swiss citizens can both propose legislation of their own, or thwart legislation already approved by parliament.
There are two different ways to consult the people, depending on the nature of the issue: the popular initiative, and the referendum. In the popular initiative, any Swiss citizen has the right to propose new legislation by launching an initiative - although normally initiatives come from pressure groups rather than individuals. If they manage to gather 100,000 signatures in support of the proposal, it must be put to a nation-wide vote. The Swiss use the term "referendum" for a popular vote called to challenge a piece of legislation already approved by the Federal Assembly. If any person or group opposed to the new law manages to collect 50,000 signatures within 100 days of the official publication of the proposed legislation, the voters as a whole are given the chance to decide. In most cases, a referendum is only called if those who feel strongly about the issue manage to collect enough signatures.