Switzerland’s ‘Direct Democracy’ Political System

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Switzerland’s form of political system known as ‘Direct Democracy’, is not practised in any other country. It is a form or system of democracy “in which the power to govern lies directly in the hands of the people rather than their political representatives.

Constitutionally it is a federal state made up of 26 autonomous cantons, six of which are counted as half-cantons. The six cantons have exactly the same status as full cantons, but differ in certain cases such as during voting in referenda and in the small chamber of parliament where decisions are determined by numerical strength.

The Swiss parliament, known as the Federal Assembly, is the highest legislative body at federal level and consists of two chambers: the National Council and the Council of States. 

 The National Council is an equivalent of "house of representatives" in the USA, and has 200 members elected every four years. The number of seats allocated to each canton is based on their relative population. But a canton has at least one seat. Basel-City has 5 seats. 

The Council of States is an equivalent of "Senate" in the USA, with 46 elected members representing the cantons. Each canton has two seats, with the exception of the half-cantons: Obwalden, Nidwalden, Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden, which has one seat each. The rules to elect the members are made by cantonal legislation, and differ from canton to canton. The rules to elect the members are made by cantonal legislation, and differ from canton to canton. Majority of the cantons elect their members of the Council of States and National Council every four years on the same day.

The federal councillors, (equivalent of ministers) are elected by the Federal Assembly.

As a federal state, the country operates on three level: Federal, Cantonal and Communal. And every level has the three arms of government which are: executive, legislative and judiciary.

Each canton has its own government as well as the three arms. The legislative (House of Assembly) in Basel-City it is called “Grosser Rat” which consists of 100 members of assembly known as “Grossrätinnen and Grossräte.” The sessions at the Grosser Rat are open to the public. 

They meet every Tuesday and the meetings are led by the representative of the presidential department, who is right now Elisabeth Ackermann (SP). Dr. Lukas Engelberger (CVP) is the head of the Cantonal Department of Health, Dr. Hans Peter Wessels (SP) governs the Cantonal Department of Construction and Traffic, Christoph Brutschin (SP) represents the Cantonal Department of Economy and Social Affairs, Dr. Conradin Cramer (CVP) heads the Educational Department, Baschi Dürr (FDP) leads the Cantonal Department of Justice and Dr. Eva Herzog heads the Cantonal Department of Finance. 

The executive power of Switzerland executes laws that the legislative has enacted. 

Federal Government and Administration

Switzerland's federal government is made up of the Federal Council and the Federal Administration. The government consists of seven members, Federal Councillors (Ministers) with equal rights. The federal councillors are elected by Federal Assembly. Each councillor acts as head of a department (ministry) of the federal administration, but all major government decisions are taken at the weekly Federal Council meetings either by consensus or by majority voting of all the seven members. 

Doris Leuthard (CVP) is the current President and heads the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications since 2010. Other councilors are: Ueli Maurer (SVP) heads the Federal Department of Finance, Didier Burkhalter (FDP) heads the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Johann Schneider Ammann (FDP) heads the Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research, Guy Parmelin (SVP) head of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport, Simonetta Sommaruga (SP) is for the Department of Justice and Police and Alain Berset (SP) is for the FD of Home Affairs.

Consensus is sought in all decisions and all members of the Federal Council are to promote the government’s decisions to the public, even if the decisions are not in line with their parties’ 

The members of Switzerland's federal government are (re-)elected every four years in December after the Council of States and National Council elections at a joint meeting known as the Federal Assembly. There is no legal limit to the tenure of office for Federal Councillors. Some have been in office for over 20 years.

Switzerland does not have a full-time president. The President is primus inter pares [first among equals] with very limited special powers. The role is rotational and a new president is elected every year by the federal councillors. The duty of the President includes preparing the agenda and chairing the weekly meeting, delivering a New Year’s address to the nation on January 1, another on the country’s national day, August 1 and others on similar occasions. The President also represents the country at some international conferences. Often the government is represented by one or two other members, depending on the theme. Official foreign guests are usually welcomed by the government in corpore (all members).

At the cantonal level the same system applies. In the canton of Basel-City the government is called “Regierungsrat” and it consists of seven members that are (re-)elected every four years. They meet every Tuesday and the meetings are led by the representative of the presidential department, who presently is Elisabeth Ackermann (SP). 

Legislation Procedure 

There are three ways to introduce a new legislation: 

(a) Through popular proposal by the public. The proposal can be submitted after receiving at least 50,000 signatures from eligible Swiss voters. 

(b) Through a motion by a member of parliament, and 

(c) The government.

Proposals are first discussed by “commissions.” Both parliaments have several commissions. The role of these commissions are manifold but globally they control the work of the administration and thoroughly debate new laws. Specialists in such fields as health and military among others are elected to represent their party in these commissions

The proposed laws in these commissions are sent to the National Council and the Council of States. These can go back and forth for a maximum of three times until a common agreement is reached. 

Any failure to get a consensus by all parties would lead to a referendum. It needs 50’000 signatures or eight cantons to demand for a referendum.

There are certain subjects, like the adhesion to international organisations, such as the UN, which demand a compulsory referendum.

It should be noted that parliamentary work is not a full-time job in Switzerland. Parliament meets four times a year for several weeks. In between, each member has to read the proposed new law individually and must attend one-day conferences of commissions.

Political Parties 

There are seven major political parties in Switzerland. The others are much smaller and play less important roles both at the federal and cantonal levels. The seven are: Social Democratic Party (SP), Free Democratic Party (FDP), Christian Democratic Party (CVP), Swiss People's Party (SVP), The Greens, Liberal Greens, and the BDP.

Parliamentary Elections

Elections to Federal and canton parliaments are held every four years. Ms. Sarah Wyss, Member of Parliament (SP) says that the first step for any potential candidate is to inform the political party of the intention to become a candidate and then go through a primary session during which party members/ delegates approve the nomination for the seat or constituency for which the prospective candidate wishes to contest. 


The complexity of the Swiss electioneering system requires serious explanation that will be done in a later edition. 

The ballot lists feature the names of the contestants. After votes are cast, the successful candidate on a list can withdraw to pave the way for the runner-up to be declared the winner. It is possible that a candidate on the list can give his/her votes to another candidate thereby creating an opportunity for the receiver to win.

Such a withdrawal and vote giving is a personal choice but could be influenced by a candidate’s party. 

On financing of campaign

Ms.Wyss says that there is no rule on how much a candidate is allowed to spend on electioneering campaign. She says candidates are allowed to raise the fund by themselves and that the party can support them if they run short. “It depends on the party. Sometimes the candidates have to foot the bills, sometimes it is the party. But it is not financed by the state,” she explains.

Sources:  Mrs Patrycja Sacharuk, Informationsstelle, GGG Migration Basel Stadt