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EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland’s cantons are so powerful

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EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland’s cantons are so powerful
The Swiss are very loyal to their cantons. File photo: Depositphotos"

Cantons play a hugely important role in Swiss life and you will have to deal with cantonal authorities at some stage if you live in Switzerland. But what exactly do they do and what powers do they have? Read on to find out more.


There are three levels of power in Switzerland

Switzerland is a federation with three levels of state power: The Confederation, the cantons and, lastly, the communes, which are the smallest political unit in the country.

All cantons enjoy equal status

The Swiss federation is made up of 26 cantons, which are a bit like the states in the US. The cantons' distinctive flags (which are all square like the Swiss national flag) can be seen everywhere from public buildings to car number plates.

The flag of canton Glarus. File photo: Depositphotos

The Swiss are very loyal to the cantons, all of which have their own unique identity, history, traditions and even public holidays.

READ ALSO: Ten things you need to know about the Swiss political system

In 2017, Zurich had the largest population with a little over 1.5 million residents, while at the other end of the scale Appenzell Innerrhoden had around just 16,100 inhabitants. Graubünden is the largest in terms of square kilometres (7,105 km2), while Basel is the smallest (just 37km2).

However, despite the differences in population, all of Switzerland’s 26 cantons have equal status and rights under the constitution.


To ensure cantonal voices are heard in the national Swiss parliament, all cantons send two representatives to the Swiss senate, except for the former half-cantons (such as Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden) which send one each.

In the lower house of the Swiss parliament, by contrast, electoral seats are assigned according to cantonal population.

The cantons have extensive powers

According to the Swiss constitution, the Confederation “only undertakes tasks that the cantons are unable to perform or which require uniform regulation by the Confederation”.

For example, the Confederation takes the lead on matters including foreign policy, defence and national security as well as customs and monetary policy.

There are a number of areas – such as higher education – where power is shared.

Importantly, cantonal law must not contravene federal legislation.

However, cantons have a huge say on key matters including their budget, political systems and taxation. They also carry out tasks that the communes are unable to perform.

Generally speaking, communes manage the local school system and local roads alongside local planning and taxation.

You will have contact with your cantonal authorities

If you are a foreigner living in Switzerland, you will have contact with cantonal authorities when it comes to work permits. These are issued by the cantons and in the case of B (resident foreign national) permits, you can only live in the canton where your permit was issued.

READ ALSO: An essential guide to Swiss work permits

You will likely also need to contact your canton on car and driving licence issues while you are also likely to have contact with cantons if you are applying for Swiss citizenship. On this last issue, cantons and communes often have their own processes.



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