The Cantons

Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons which enjoy a high degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the federal government.

Inside view of the dome of the Federal Palace with the coats of arms of the cantons
The dome of the Federal Palace © The Swiss Parliament

Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons. Each is an independent and sovereign entity, with their own capital town or city. The cantons vary greatly as to size, culture, religion and socioeconomic structure.

With 1.4 million inhabitants, the canton of Zurich is the most heavily populated, while Appenzell-Innerrhoden, with a mere 15,500 inhabitants, is the most sparsely populated canton in Switzerland.

Origins

The cantons are the collection of stand-alone states which joined forces in 1848 to form a Confederation, although this required them to surrender some of their sovereignty. The number of cantons remained the same until 1979 when Jura split from the canton of Bern and became Switzerland's 26th canton.

Six cantons, historically referred to as “half-cantons”, send only one deputy to the Council of States (upper house of the Federal Assembly). They are Obwalden, Nidwalden, Appenzell-Innerrhoden, Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Land.

Role of the cantons

Each canton has its own constitution, parliament, government and courts. According to the principle of subsidiarity enshrined in the Federal Constitution, all powers that are not expressly granted to the Confederation fall within the competence of the cantons. The cantons enjoy a high degree of autonomy in areas like education, health and policing.

The cantonal parliaments vary in size, with the number of popularly elected deputies ranging from 50 to 180. The five- or seven-member cantonal governments are also directly elected by the people.

The cantons of Appenzell-Innerrhoden and Glarus still practice a type of direct democracy that is the only form of its kind in the world – the “Landsgemeinde”, or people’s assembly. Once a year, the citizens of these cantons converge on their capital's main square to elect, with a show of hands, the members of the executive, and to cast their vote on draft cantonal legislation. The results are more an estimate than an exact calculation. In all other cantons, the electorate cast their vote at the ballot box.