The Swiss political system

How the system works

The Swiss political system

Switzerland is a semi-direct democratic federal republic. In this system the citizens hold the sovereignty of the state but the representatives in Parliament execute daily governance. This way citizens control the government and the issuing of laws through referendums and popular initiatives. 

The Swiss parliament (Federal Assembly) is a bicameral system and therefore is divided into two bodies, the National Council and the Council of States. These are in charge of the legislative power in Switzerland.

The National Council (Nationalrat)

The National Council (lower chamber) has 200 members elected by popular vote every four years. These members represent the people of Switzerland at a federal level. The number of seats that they have in Parliament depends on the percentage of the meet have the required minimum percentage, they are still entitled to at least one seat on the National Council. 

Furthermore, voters can vote for as many candidates as the canton is allowed to send to the National Council. This means that a citizen from a canton sending up to 35 candidates can vote for 35 different candidates. A unique characteristic is that you are allowed to vote for a candidate twice.

Council of States (Ständerat)

The Council of States (upper chamber) has 46 members also elected by popular vote every four years. Contrary to the National Council, the number of representatives in the upper chamber does not depend on the percentage of population in the canton. There are always two representatives per canton except for half-cantons which have only one member. The Council of States is in charge of representing the different cantons. As opposed to the National Council, the citizens allowed to vote vary depending on the laws concerning this issue. There are some cantons where foreign residents are allowed to vote, and others where they are not. 

Federal assembly (Bundesversammlung)

The Federal Council, also known as the Swiss Federal Government is in charge of the legislative power of the country together with the constitutional right of citizen’s initiative. It has a total of seven members who belong to the political parties with the most votes in Parliament. Each member is in charge of one of the ministries of the federal administration, which include finance, environment and defence among others. On top of that, the council has a president elected by the Federal Assembly every year with the task of representing the country at home and abroad and carrying out ceremonial duties. He is not considered a leader but a spokesperson of the people and the council. 

How the three work together

Both the Council of States and National Council meet for a period of three weeks four times a year to debate about constitutional amendments before exposing them to popular vote as well as adopting or repealing federal legislation. For a bill to become a law, both councils have to have accepted the same version of the bill. If there are differences between the two chambers issuing the bill, it’s sent back and forth until they reach an agreement, otherwise they have to meet and discuss the issue. 

In addition, once a year the National Council elects a President of the National Council in charge of presiding over the National Council and the joint sessions between the upper and lower chambers. 

In some cases the two houses meet as the “United Federal Assembly” to: 

  • Elect members of the Federal Assembly, the Chancellor, the federal judges and a general in convulsive times. 
  • Act as arbitrator in disputes between federal authorities. 
  • Issue pardons. 

It is worth mentioning that unlike in many other countries, most deputies in the parliament do not have a salary; they receive stipends instead. For this reason most of them have a second job in addition to their parliamentary duties. 

Further reading

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