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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Switzerland is a federal state composed of 26 cantons (20 are "full" cantons and six "half" cantons for purposes of representation in the federal legislature) that retain attributes of sovereignty, such as fiscal autonomy and the right to manage internal cantonal affairs. Under the 1874 constitution, cantons hold all powers not specifically delegated to the federation. Switzerland's federal institutions are:

  • A bicameral legislature -- the Federal Assembly;
  • A collegial executive of seven members -- the Federal Council; and
  • A judiciary consisting of a single, regular court, the Federal Tribunal, in Lausanne and special military and administrative courts. The Federal Insurance Tribunal is an independent division for social security questions (the seat of the latter is in Lucerne, but it is part of the Federal Tribunal).

The constitution provides for separation of the three branches of government.

The Federal Assembly is the primary seat of power, although in practice the executive branch has been increasing its power at the expense of the legislative branch. The Assembly has two houses -- the Council of States and the National Council. These two houses have equal powers in all respects, including the right to introduce legislation. Legislation cannot be vetoed by the executive nor reviewed for constitutionality by the judiciary, but all laws (except the budget) can be reviewed by referendum before taking effect.

The 46 members of the Council of States (two from each canton and one from each half canton) are directly elected in each canton. The 200 members of the National Council are elected directly under a system of proportional representation. Members of both houses serve for 4 years.

The Assembly meets quarterly in 3-week sessions and can be legally dissolved only after a popular vote calling for a complete constitutional revision.

All citizens 18 or older have the right to vote and run for office in national, cantonal, and communal elections unless individually disqualified by the relevant legislature.

A strong emphasis on the initiative and the referendum arises out of the traditional Swiss belief that the will of the people is the final national authority. As a limitation on the power of referendum, the Assembly can declare an act to be too urgent to allow time for popular consideration, but this is rare.

The top executive body is the Federal Council. Although the constitution provides that the Assembly chooses and supervises the Council, the latter gradually has assumed a preeminent role in directing the legislative process as well as executing federal laws.

The Council has seven Councilors elected for 4-year terms by the Assembly. Each year, the Assembly elects from among the seven a president and vice president, following the principle of seniority. The member who is vice president one year traditionally is elected president the next. Under an arrangement called the "magic formula," which has been in effect since 1959, two Councilors are elected from each of three major parties (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Free Democrats) and one from a smaller fourth party (Swiss People's). Councilors constitutionally act collectively in all matters, not as individual ministers or as representatives of the parties to which they belong.

Each Councilor heads one of seven federal departments and is responsible for preparing legislation pertaining to matters under its jurisdiction. The president, who remains responsible for the department he heads, has limited prerogatives and is first among equals.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Courts & Judgments

The administration of justice is primarily a cantonal function. The only regular federal court, the Federal Tribunal, is limited in its jurisdiction. Its principal function is to hear appeals of civil and criminal cases. It has authority to review cantonal court decisions involving federal law and certain administrative rulings of federal departments, but it has no power to review legislation for constitutionality. The Tribunal's 30 members are elected for 6-year terms by the Assembly.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Correspondents' Reports

JURIST's Switzerland Correspondent is Cyrill P. Rigamonti, Esq., Dr.iur. Candidate 2001, University of Zurich Faculty of Law.

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Cyrill P. Rigamonti, Esq.
Dr.iur. Candidate 2001, University of Zurich Faculty of Law