Direct democracy – Swiss political system


Switzerland is known for its unique political system as a direct democracy. In addition to universal suffrage, the Swiss also have the right to vote on substantive issues. The government is formed by the Federal Council, a body of seven members who generally make decisions by consensus.

The four largest parties together make up the Federal Council. This model of cooperation enables the broad involvement of political forces and promotes consensus in decision-making processes. Citizens therefore have an active role in shaping their political landscape and can exert a direct influence, making Switzerland a living example of direct democracy.

Switzerland as a federal state since 1848

Switzerland as a federal state since 1848

1848: From a confederation of states to a federal state

In 1848, modern Switzerland was founded as a federal state, having previously consisted of a loose confederation of independent cantons. With the introduction of a new constitution, Switzerland gained a centralized government that took over responsibilities in areas such as foreign and financial policy, while the cantons retained a certain degree of autonomy.

The main aim of the constitution was to harmonize the different interests of the individual cantons with the overall interests of the federal state. This transformation enabled more effective governance and created a stable foundation for Switzerland’s current political landscape.

Swiss form of government: direct democracy

Switzerland is characterized as a parliamentary-democratic federal state with a direct democracy.

Switzerland’s political system comprises a bicameral Federal Assembly. The National Council, consisting of 200 deputies, represents the people, while the Council of States, with 46 deputies, represents the interests of the cantons. The seat of government is located in the federal capital Bern.

Federal Palace Bern

Federal Palace Bern

The Federal Assembly is responsible for electing the Federal Council, which acts as the collective head of state and consists of seven members. The Federal Council forms the government of Switzerland and is responsible for executive power. This political system enables broad participation by the population and promotes consensus in political decisions.

National Council

The National Council consists of 200 members and represents the Swiss people. The seats are distributed among the 26 cantons, whereby the size of the population plays a decisive role. Each canton has at least one seat in the National Council.

Council of States

The Council of States represents the cantons. It is made up of 46 representatives from all cantons. One representative is elected in each of the cantons of Obwalden, Nidwalden, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden, and two in each of the other cantons. The canton of Zurich, with a population of over one million, elects two councillors, as does the canton of Uri, which has a population of around 35,000.

Federal Palace National Council Chamber

Federal Palace National Council Chamber

This system of National Council and Council of States ensures that both populous cantons and smaller cantons are adequately represented in the legislature. It ensures that the voices and interests of all citizens are taken into account in national legislation. This balanced distribution ensures a fair and diverse representation of the Swiss population.

Federalism and direct democracy

Switzerland is characterized by a remarkable federalism based on two fundamental principles. Firstly, the 26 cantons and their municipalities enjoy strong autonomy, which gives them a significant role in political decision-making. Secondly, direct democracy allows citizens to participate directly. Through popular initiatives and regular referendums, residents have the opportunity to influence government activity. This unique approach strengthens participation at all levels and allows people to actively participate in the political process and make their voices heard.

Video Switzerland’s direct democracy

Together with neutrality and federalism, direct democracy is a part of the Swiss national identity and helps unite the various languages, religions and cultures in the country. This video gives you a short introduction to this unique political system.

Switzerland's direct democracy

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Video How Swiss is the US electoral system?

The US electoral system may seem rather unique, but it actually has a lot in common with Switzerland’s brand of democracy. Here’s how they compare.

How Swiss is the US electoral system?

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