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Switzerland TravelSwitzerland guide / Switzerland politics

Switzerland politics

Switzerland's politics, like Switzerland itself, are complex. When it comes to state activity, federal legislation in Switzerland establishes a baseline national standard, but at the same time leaves a generous share of self-determination to the communes and cantons
Switzerland's politics, like Switzerland itself, are complex. When it comes to state activity, federal legislation in Switzerland establishes a baseline national standard, but at the same time leaves a generous share of self-determination to the communes and cantons. Though the modern Swiss democratic constitution only dates back to 1848, when it was put into effect after a brief civil war, Switzerland has a much longer tradition as a republic. The Swiss constitution was amended in 1874, and has also been amended on occasion since then. A revision in 1999 did not make any changes of substance, but rather established more readable modern wording.

As defined in its federal constitution, Switzerland is a federal state that is made up of 26 cantons, each of which has far reaching autonomy. Some sources give the total number of cantons as 23, and this is almost technically correct, because six of the 26 were the result of splitting three cantons into two halves each. the half cantons have the same status as full cantons, except for the arithmetic of voting in referendums and the lower house of parliament.

The government, courts, and parliaments are organized on three levels, the federal level, the cantonal level (which relies on 26 cantonal constitutions), and the communal level (small villages and small cantons that have their own reunions instead of cantonal and communal parliaments).

In principle, the federal Swiss constitution reserves the powers of customs, tariffs, the army, foreign relations, value added taxes and currency legislation (weight and measurement), rail networks and communications networks. However, the cantons and some of the major cities have their own armed police forces, and manage their own universities and hospitals. Public school legislation is made on the cantonal level, giving Switzerland 26 different education systems. The schools themselves are in fact run by the individual communes, as are public services like collection of garbage and water supply. Taxes are collected on the communal, cantonal, and federal levels.

The Swiss electorate has more participation rights than any other country, and the Swiss make regular use of them. The right for women to vote, however, only came about in 1959, introduced on a cantonal level and on a communal level, though 67% of the national male electorate rejected it. It wasn't until 1971 that women had the right to vote on the national level. The two half-cantons in eastern Switzerland, Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden refused to grand women the right to vote in 1971. But by the late 1980s Appenzell Ausserrhoden gave in to public opinion and granted women the right to vote. In Appenzell Innerrhoden, however, would not budge. Women were granted the vote in Appenzell Innerrhoden only after the Swiss Federal Supreme Court made a ruling in 1990 that the right for women to vote in Appenzell Innerrhoden would not require the cantonal constitution to change. The judges ruled that interpreting the existing cantonal constitution term "citizens" applies to men and women.

Switzerland has a two chamber federal parliament. The National Council is the Swiss equivalent of the House of Representatives, or the UK House of Commons. It has 200 members who are elected every four years by a refined proportional election system. The Council of States represents the cantons, similar to the way the U.S. Senate represents states. Full cantons send two members, while half-cantons send one. There are 46 total members of the Council of States. Most cantons elect their members of the Counicil of States every four years on the same day that elections for the National Council are held.

The two chambers consider new laws separately, and sometimes have to reconcile the bills passed by each chamber, much as is done with the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Parliamentary duties are not considered a full-time job in Switzerland. Officially, parliament meets four times per year for several weeks. In between sessions, each member has to read up on proposals for new laws and attend single day conferences of commissions.

Each chamber of parliament forms several commissions on various specialties like adminisration, health, military, and other specialties. All parties with at least 5 members of parliament are represented on a few commissions, and parties that have fewer than 5 representatives may form a "fraction" group that gives them the right to work in commissions.

Switzerland doesn't have a full time president, but rather presidential functions are taken over by one or all of the parliament members in turn. Every year another member of the government is elected as federal president. The president has very limited special powers that include setting the agenda of the weekly conferences, addresses the population on August 1 (a major national holiday), and represents Switzerland on some international conferences.

Direct democracy is a more significant part of Switzerland's government than it is in many other western nations, with frequent referendums on new laws, budgets, and other matters. Ordinary citizens can propose changes to the constitutiion if they can find 100,000 supporters out of the 3,5 million registered voters.

Switzerland has five national political parties: the Social Democratc Party (SP); the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Swiss People's Party (SVP); the Christian Democratic Party (CVP), and the Green Party.

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