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Swiss federalism and direct democracy reflect the importance which the country attaches to the freedom of choice and self-determination. The political system dates back to the founding of the modern state of Switzerland with the entry into force of the Swiss Constitution in 1848. The capital of Switzerland is Berne.
Confoederatio Helvetica (CH) is the official Latin name of the Swiss Confederation. Switzerland a federal state with three political levels:
- federal government
- 26 cantons (20 full and 6 half-cantons)
- around 2,600 municipalities
The cantons and the municipalities are largely autonomous. Every canton has its own constitution, laws, parliament and courts. This decentralised division of power and the attempt to solve issues at the lowest possible level – known as the subsidiarity principle – are the cornerstones of the Swiss Confederation.
Switzerland is a federal republic with a system of direct democracy in which the people are sovereign. All Swiss citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote. They get to exercise this right regularly, as they are called on three to four times a year to take part in popular votes on a variety of political issues. The instruments of direct democracy are:
• The popular initiative gives citizens the right to propose an amendment or addition to the Constitution. 100,000 signatures of people who are eligible to vote must be collected over a period of 18 months. Once there are enough valid signatures, the initiative is put to a popular vote.
• The optional referendum gives citizens the right to demand that any bill approved by parliament be put to a nationwide vote. 50,000 signatures must be collected in 100 days. Once there are enough valid signatures, the new law must be put to a popular vote.
• Mandatory referendum: all constitutional amendments approved by parliament must be put to a nationwide vote. Voters are also required to approve Swiss membership of international organisations, such as the United Nations and the European Union.
In recent times voter turnout has averaged out at around 40%. An overwhelming majority of Swiss people vote by mail ballot. E-voting is currently being trialled in a number of cantons.
Government and parliament
Executive power is in the hands of the seven-member government, also known as the Federal Council. The seven Federal Councillors are elected or re-elected, as the case may be, by the Federal Assembly every four years at the beginning of a new legislature. The Federal Council runs seven departments (ministries), sees to the execution of federal legislation, drafts new legislation and negotiates with other countries.
All seven share the duties of a head of state. Every year, a different Federal Councillor takes on the role of president. The Federal Council is assisted and advised on the running of its business by the Federal Chancellery.
The government is made up of representatives of the four main parties, based on the so-called “magic formula”.
Legislative power in Switzerland is exercised by Parliament, also known as the Federal Assembly. The Swiss Parliament is divided into two chambers with equal power: the National Council and the Council of States:
• The National Council represents the people and has 200 members. Every canton returns a number of MPs proportional to the size of its population.
• The Council of States has 46 members and represents the cantons. Every full canton is represented by two members and the half cantons by one member.
Parliament is elected every four years and its members carry out their parliamentary duties on a part-time basis.
Switzerland enjoys close political and economic ties with a great number of countries around the world and is a member of various international organisations: In 1960, Switzerland was a founding member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA); in 1963 it joined the European Council and in 1975 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Switzerland is also a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Switzerland joined the Bretton Woods organisations in 1992.
In 2002, Switzerland became the 190th member of the United Nations following a nationwide vote on the issue. Prior to this, Switzerland had played an active role in various UN bodies. Switzerland has also signed a great many bilateral agreements with other states. Relations between Switzerland and the European Union are founded on bilateral sectoral agreements: Bilateral Agreements I (1999) and Bilateral Agreements II (2004).
The goals of Swiss foreign policy are:
- Peaceful co-existence of people of all nations
- Promotion of and respect for human rights
- Environmental sustainability
- Representing the interests of Swiss businesses abroad
- Combating need and poverty in the world
Neutrality and humanitarian tradition
Switzerland is a neutral state. It is also a depositary state of the Geneva Conventions which set out the rights and obligation of combatants and seek to protect the civilian population and soldiers. The conventions were the idea of Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant, who founded the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1863. To this day, Geneva is home to its headquarters, making the city the humanitarian capital of the world. Geneva is also home to the European Office of the UN and to some 200 international organisations, of which over 150 are permanent diplomatic missions.
Swiss Armed Forces
Switzerland has a militia army. This means that the soldiers serve in the army alongside their normal job or studies. Military service is compulsory for all Swiss men aged between 20 and 34. Women can serve voluntarily.