Politics of Switzerland

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This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Switzerland

The politics of Switzerland take place in the framework of a multi-party federal directorial democratic republic, whereby the Federal Council of Switzerland is the head of government and head of state. Executive power is exercised by the government and the federal administration and is not concentrated in any one person. Federal legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of the Federal Assembly of Switzerland. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

Switzerland is the closest state in the world to a direct democracy. For any change in the constitution, a referendum is mandatory (mandatory referendum); for any change in a law, a referendum can be requested (optional referendum). Through referenda, citizens may challenge any law voted by federal parliament and through federal popular initiative introduce amendments to the federal constitution.

Direct representation[edit]

Switzerland features a system of government not seen in any other nation: direct representation, sometimes called half-direct democracy (this may be arguable, because theoretically, the Sovereign of Switzerland is actually its entire electorate). Referendums on the most important laws have been used since the 1848 constitution.

Amendments of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland, the joining of international organizations or changes to federal laws that have no foundation in the constitution but if in force for more than one year must be approved by the majority of both the people and the cantons, a (double majority).

Any citizen may challenge a law that has been passed by parliament. If that person is able to gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days, a national vote has to be scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority of the voters whether to accept or reject the law. [1]

Also, any citizen may seek a decision on an amendment they want to make to the constitution. For such a federal popular initiative to be organised, the signatures of 100,000 voters must be collected within 18 months.[1] Such a federal popular initiative is formulated as a precise new text (general proposal initiatives have been canceled in 2009[2]) whose wording can no longer be changed by parliament and the government. After a successful signature gathering, the federal council may create a counterproposal to the proposed amendment and put it to vote on the same day as the original proposal. Such counter-proposals are usually a compromise between the status quo and the wording of the initiative. Voters will decide in a national vote whether to accept the initiative amendment, the counter proposal put forward by the government if any, or both. If both are accepted, one has to additionally signal a preference. Initiatives (that are of constitutional level) have to be accepted by a double majority of both the popular votes and a majority of the cantons, while counter-proposals may be of legislative level and hence require only simple majority.

Executive branch[edit]

The 2014 Swiss Federal Council (the Federal Chancellor is also depicted, at the right)

The Swiss Federal Council is a seven-member executive council that heads the federal administration, operating as a combination cabinet and collective presidency. Any Swiss citizen eligible to be a member of the National Council can be elected;[3] candidates do not have to register for the election, or to actually be members of the National Council. The Federal Council is elected by the Federal Assembly for a four-year term. Present members are: Doris Leuthard (CVP/PDC), Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (BDP/PBD), Ueli Maurer (SVP/UDC), Didier Burkhalter (FDP/PRD), Simonetta Sommaruga (SP/PS), Johann Schneider-Ammann (FDP/PRD) and Alain Berset (SP/PS).

The largely ceremonial President and Vice President of the Confederation are elected by the Federal Assembly from among the members of the Federal Council for one-year terms that run concurrently. The President has almost no powers over and above his or her six colleagues, but undertakes representative functions normally performed by a president or prime minister in single-executive systems. The current (As of 2014) President and Vice President are Didier Burkhalter and Simonetta Sommaruga, respectively.

The Swiss executive is one of the most stable governments worldwide. Since 1848, it has never been renewed entirely at the same time, providing a long-term continuity. From 1959 to 2003 the Federal Council was composed of a coalition of all major parties in the same ratio: 2 each from the Free Democratic Party, Social Democratic Party and Christian Democratic People's Party and 1 from the Swiss People's Party. Changes in the council occur typically only if one of the members resigns (merely four incumbent members were voted out of the office in over 150 years);[1] this member is almost always replaced by someone from the same party (and often also from the same linguistic group).

The Swiss government has been a coalition of the four major political parties since 1959, each party having a number of seats that roughly reflects its share of electorate and representation in the federal parliament. The classic distribution of 2 CVP/PDC, 2 SPS/PSS, 2 FDP/PRD and 1 SVP/UDC as it stood from 1959 to 2003 was known as the "magic formula".[1]

This "magic formula" has been repeatedly criticised: in the 1960s, for excluding leftist opposition parties; in the 1980s, for excluding the emerging Green party; and particularly after the 1999 election, by the People's Party, which had by then grown from being the fourth largest party on the National Council to being the largest. In the elections of 2003, the People's Party received (effective January 1, 2004) a second seat in the Federal Council, reducing the share of the Christian Democratic Party to one seat.

Legislative branch[edit]

Switzerland has a bicameral parliament called the Federal Assembly, made up of:

  • the Council of States (46 seats - members serve four-year terms) and
  • the National Council (200 seats - members serve four-year terms and are elected by popular vote on a basis of proportional representation)

The previous elections (before those held in 2011, below) to the National Council were held in 2007, see 2007 elections for more details. The five parties that hold seats in the Federal Council dominate both chambers of the Assembly; they currently hold a supermajority of 167 seats in the National Council, and 41 in the Council of States.

Most hearings in the parliament are open to everyone, including foreigners.

Political parties and elections[edit]

For other political parties see List of political parties in Switzerland. An overview on elections and election results is included in Elections in Switzerland.

Switzerland has a rich party landscape. The five parties represented in the Federal Council are generally called the government parties: Free Democratic Party, Social Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Party, Swiss People's Party, and Conservative Democratic Party of Switzerland.

As of 2011 only the five government parties were represented in the Council of States. In the National Council the party landscape is more diverse with six non-government parties having at least one seat.

e • d Summary of the 23 October 2011 National Council of Switzerland election results
Parties Abbr. Alignment Ideology Votes[4]  % +/– (%) Seats  % +/– (seats)
Swiss People's Party SVP/UDC Right-wing National conservatism 648,675 26.6 −2.3 54 27.0 −8
Social Democratic Party SPS/PSS Centre-left Social democracy 457,317 18.7 −0.8 46 23.0 +3
FDP.The Liberals FDP/PLR Centre-right Classical liberalism 368,951 15.1 −2.5 30 15.0 −5
Christian Democratic People's Party CVP/PDC Centre-right Christian democracy 300,544 12.3 −2.2 28 14.0 −3
Green Party GPS/PES Centre-left Green politics 205,984 8.4 −1.2 15 7.5 −5
Conservative Democratic Party BDP/PBD Centre-right Conservatism / Economic liberalism 132,279 5.4 New 9 4.5 New
Green Liberal Party GLP/PVL Centre Green liberalism 131,436 5.4 +4.0 12 6.0 +9
Evangelical People's Party EVP/PEV Centre Christian democracy 48,789 2.0 −0.4 2 1.0 ±0
Federal Democratic Union EDU/UDF Right-wing Christian right 31,056 1.3 ±0 0 0 −1
Alternative Left (Party of Labour, solidaritéS) LIN/GAU Left-wing Socialism / communism 21,482 0.9 −0.2 0 0 −1
Ticino League LdT Right-wing Regionalism / Right-wing populism 19,657 0.8 +0.3 2 1.0 +1
Geneva Citizens' Movement MCG Right-wing Regionalism / Right-wing populism 10,714 0.4 +0.3 1 0.5 +1
Christian Social Party CSP/PCS Centre-left Christian left 6,248 0.3 -0.2 1 0.5 ±0
Other 54,622 2.2 0 0
Total (turnout 48.5%) 2,442,648 200
Source: Swiss Federal Statistical Office (French)
e • d  Summary of the 23 October, 13 November, 20 November, 27 November and 4 December 2011 Council of States of Switzerland election results
Parties Ideology 2007 Seats ±
Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP/PDC) Christian democracy 15 13 -2
FDP.The Liberals (FDP/PRD) Classical liberalism 12 11 -1
Social Democratic Party (SPS/PSS) Social democracy 9 11 +2
Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC) National conservatism 7 5 -2
Green Party (GPS/PES) Green politics 2 2 ±0
Green Liberal Party (GLP/VL) Green liberalism 1 2 +1
Conservative Democratic Party (BDP/PBD) Conservatism / Economic liberalism 0 1 +1
Independent Independent 0 1 +1
Total 46 46
Source: http://www.politik-stat.ch/srw2011CH_de.html

Judicial branch[edit]

Switzerland has a Federal Supreme Court, with judges elected for six-year terms by the Federal Assembly. The function of the Federal Supreme Court is to hear appeals of cantonal courts or the administrative rulings of the federal administration.

Political conditions[edit]

Political positions of the Swiss political parties based on their referendum voting recommendations, 1985-90 and 2010-14

Switzerland has a stable government. Most voters support the government in its philosophy of armed neutrality underlying its foreign and defense policies. Domestic policy poses some major problems, to the point that many observers deem that the system is in crisis[1] but the changing international environment has generated a significant reexamination of Swiss policy in key areas such as defense, neutrality, and immigration. Quadrennial national elections typically produce only marginal changes in party representation.

In recent years, Switzerland has seen a gradual shift in the party landscape. The right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), traditionally the junior partner in the four-party coalition government, more than doubled its voting share from 11.0% in 1987 to 22.5% in 1999, rising to 28.9% in 2007, thus overtaking its three coalition partners. This shift in voting shares put a strain on the "magic formula", the power-broking agreement of the four coalition parties. Since 1959 the seven-seat cabinet had comprised 2 Free Democrats, 2 Christian Democrats, 2 Social Democrats, and 1 Swiss People's Party, but in 2004, the Swiss People's Party took one seat from the Christian Democrats. Because of the split-off of the Conservative Democratic Party from the Swiss People's Party in 2008, since then the latter holds again only one seat in the Federal Council as of 2011. Also, the People's Party lost eight of their seats in the National Council and two in the Council of states in the elections of 2011.

The Swiss Federal Constitution limits federal influence in the formulation of domestic policy and emphasizes the roles of private enterprise and cantonal government. However, in more recent times the powers of the Confederation have increased with regard to education, agriculture, health, energy, the environment, organized crime, and narcotics[citation needed].

The Index of perception of corruption puts Switzerland among the least corrupt nations. In the 2005 survey, Switzerland ranks 7th (out of 158 surveyed), with 9.1 out of 10 possible points, representing an improvement of 0.4 points over the past four years.

Together with seven other European nations, Switzerland leads the 2005 index on Freedom of the Press published by Reporters Without Borders (with a score 0.5 points, zero being the perfect score).

Extremism[edit]

Political extremism is not a widespread phenomenon in Switzerland, although far-left extremism has increased slightly since the turn of the century in 2000 has resulted in improved organization of the far left, but it has no noticeable impact on parliamentary or direct democracy. Far-left activists briefly won the attention of mainstream media for protesting in favor of open borders and against the banning of the construction of minarets. The federal police further recognizes some activity by extremist Islamist groups as well as extremist or violent ethnic Albanian, Turkish, Kurdish and Tamil groups which mostly remain under-cover and aim at funding their activities.[5]

Foreign relations[edit]

Switzerland has avoided alliances that might entail military, political, or direct economic action. In June 2001, Swiss voters approved new legislation providing for the deployment of armed Swiss troops for international peacekeeping missions under United Nations or Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe auspices as well as international cooperation in military training. The Swiss have broadened the scope of activities in which they feel able to participate without compromising their neutrality.

Switzerland maintains diplomatic relations with almost all countries and historically has served as a neutral intermediary and host to major international treaty conferences. The country has no major disputes in its bilateral relations.

Energy politics[edit]

The emergency switch-off button of the Beznau Nuclear Power Plant. In 2011, the federal authorities decided to gradually phase out nuclear power in Switzerland.

The energy generated in Switzerland comprises 55.2% hydroelectricity, 39.9% from nuclear power, about 4% from conventional sources and about 1% other.

On May 18, 2003, two referenda regarding the future of nuclear power in Switzerland were held. The referendum Electricity Without Nuclear asked for a decision on a nuclear power phase-out and Moratorium Plus asked about an extension of an existing law forbidding the building of new nuclear power plants. Both were turned down: Moratorium Plus by a margin of 41.6% for and 58.4% opposed, and Electricity Without Nuclear by a margin of 33.7% for and 66.3% opposed. The former ten-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants was the result of a federal popular initiative voted on in 1990 which had passed with 54.5% Yes vs. 45.5% No votes (see Nuclear power in Switzerland for details).

In May 2011, due to the Fukushima accident in Japan, the Swiss government decided to abandon plans to build new nuclear reactors. The country’s five existing reactors will be allowed to continue operating, but will not be replaced at the end of their life span. The last will go offline in 2034.[6]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Pierre Cormon, Swiss Politics for Complete Beginners, Editions Slatkine, 2014, ISBN 978-2-8231-0607-5, p.23
  2. ^ http://www.admin.ch/ch/f/pore/va/20090927/det544.html
  3. ^ Swiss Federal Constitution, art. 175 al. 3
  4. ^ These numbers represent fictional voters. See National Council for more details.
  5. ^ 2005 report on domestic security
  6. ^ Kanter, James (2011-05-25). "Switzerland Decides on Nuclear Phase-Out". The New York Times. 

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]