Political Divisions

Switzerland is a confederation of 23 states, called cantons, three of which are subdivided into half-cantons for administrative purposes. The cantons and half-cantons are as follows: Aargau; Appenzell Ausser-Rhoden (half-canton); Appenzell Inner-Rhoden (half-canton); Basel-Land (half-canton); Basel-Stadt (half-canton); Bern; Fribourg; Geneva (Genève); Glarus; Graubünden (Grisons); Jura; Lucerne (Luzern); Neuchâtel; Nidwalden (half-canton); Obwalden (half-canton); Sankt Gallen; Schaffhausen; Schwyz; Solothurn (Soleure); Thurgau; Ticino; Uri; Valais; Vaud; Zug; and Zürich.

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Cantons of Switzerland


Switzerland is a republic governed under a constitution adopted on May 29, 1874, and amended many times since. The Swiss political system combines direct and indirect democracy with the principles of sovereignty of the people, separation of powers, and proportional representation. In federal elections, all citizens age 18 or older are eligible to vote; women gained suffrage in national elections in 1971 through a referendum. The electorate not only chooses its representatives but also decides important issues by means of referenda, an integral part of Swiss government. Constitutional amendments may be initiated by a petition of 50,000 voters and must be ratified by referenda. Federal legislation may also be made subject to referenda.

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The Federal Palace in the canton of Berne is the name of the building in which the Federal Assembly of Switzerland (federal parliament) and the Swiss Federal Council (executive) are housed.


In Switzerland, executive power is vested in the Bundesrat, or Federal Council, composed of seven members who are elected to four-year terms by a joint session of the bicameral parliament. The council is responsible to the parliament. The legislature elects a president from among the members of the council for a one-year term. The constitution expressly prohibits the reelection of a president to consecutive terms of office.

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The Swiss Federal Council in 2008. The current members of the council are (from left to right): Widmer-Schlumpf, Leuenberger, Calmy-Rey, Couchepin, Schmid, Leuthard, Merz. The Federal Chancellor of Switzerland, Casanova, is also pictured.


The Swiss parliament, called the Federal Assembly, consists of two houses: the Ständerat, or Council of States, with 46 members (two for each full canton and one for each half canton) elected for varying periods at the discretion of the canton; and the Nationalrat, or National Council, with 200 members elected for four-year terms under a system of proportional representation.


The Federal Tribunal at Lausanne is composed of 30 judges who are appointed for six-year terms by the Federal Assembly. The court has final jurisdiction in suits between the cantonal and federal governments, corporations and individuals, and between cantons. It has original jurisdiction only in cases involving offenses against the confederation. In addition, each canton has its own autonomous system of justice, including civil and criminal courts and a court of appeals. Capital punishment was abolished in Switzerland in 1942.

Local Government

All powers not delegated to the confederation by the Swiss constitution are reserved to the cantons. The forms of cantonal government vary, but each of the 20 full cantons and 6 half-cantons has an elected legislative council and an executive council. In the smaller cantons, the council is a Landsgemeinde, a general assembly of voting citizens who decide matters by voice vote. In most cantons, however, the legislative council is a representative body elected by popular vote. Women gained the right to vote in local and cantonal elections in most areas during the 1970s; the last male bastion, Appenzell Inner-Rhoden, changed in 1990. The commune is the basic local unit of government; Switzerland has more than 3000 communes in all, and they are largely autonomous in many governmental matters. Several communes are grouped into a district, which is headed by a prefect representing the cantonal government.

Political Parties

The strongest Swiss political parties are the Radical Democratic party, standing for strong federal power; the Social Democratic party, advocating democratic socialism; and the Christian Democratic People’s party, opposing centralization of power. Other political parties of note are the Swiss People’s party, the Independent Alliance, the Liberal party, and the Greens, an environmentalist group.

Health and Welfare

The Federal Insurance Law of 1911 regulates accident and sickness insurance. Accident insurance is compulsory for most officials and employees. Old-age and survivor’s insurance, which also includes disability benefits, is compulsory and is financed by a payroll tax on both employers and employees. Unemployment insurance became compulsory under a 1976 law.


Service in the Swiss military is compulsory for all males from the age of 20 through 42. Switzerland does not maintain a standing army, however, so service is for relatively short periods of training. Because rifles, uniforms, and other equipment are kept at home, Switzerland can totally mobilize within about 48 hours. If mobilized, the Swiss armed forces would include some 625,000 people, although the size of the force was being reduced in the mid-1990s.