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Why is Switzerland divided into 26 cantons?

Helena Bachmann in Geneva
Helena Bachmann in Geneva - [email protected] • 10 Oct, 2021 Updated Sun 10 Oct 2021 08:18 CEST
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A small country of 8.7 million people and the geographical area of merely 41,285 square kilometres, Switzerland is made up of 26 states — known here as cantons. How did this happen?

A lot of foreigners who only think of Switzerland in terms of cheese, chocolate, watches, banks, army knife, and maybe Roger Federer, are surprised to discover that this country has four languages and is divided into 26 cantons.

Recently, The Local explained why the country is multilingual.

READ MORE: How did Switzerland become a country with four languages?

But how and when did it become a confederation of 26 cantons?

This division did not happen overnight but took centuries of both bloodless and bloody upheavals.

Before the end of the 13th century, the area that is now Switzerland was a motley of separate territories that fell under different rulers, empires and dynasties.

Things famously changed with the events of August 1st, 1291, when the three "Forest Cantons" — Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden — formed the foundation of present-day Switzerland.

The other cantons left their former territories and allegiances over the next centuries, with Glarus, Zug, Zurich, Bern, and Lucerne coming into the fold by 1353. And by the first decades of the 19th century, all 26 cantons joined the confederation.

However, at that time they were mostly disparate and autonomous states. That changed in 1848, when the system of federalism as we know it today was introduced in Switzerland.

The 26 cantons of Switzerland with their crests and major cities. Image: Wikicommons.

Since then, the system has worked pretty well, with one notable exception: when the town of Moutier voted in March 2021 to leave canton Bern and join Jura instead.

Liechtenstein, by the way, is not a canton, even though the Swiss invaded it three times — by mistake.

The current cantonal map of Switzerland. Image: Wikicommons

The current cantonal map of Switzerland. Image: Wikicommons

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The 26-state federalist system is working well — so well in fact, that in 2014 a small group of activists in Sardinia pushed to leave Italy and become the 27th canton of Switzerland, to be called Canton Marittimo.

It's beautiful but we have no space. Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP

The group’s leader, Andrea Caruso, insisted that such a move would be mutually beneficial as it “would bring the Swiss miles of stunning coastline and untapped economic potential. Sardinia could retain considerable autonomy, while also reaping the benefits of Switzerland’s direct democracy, administrative efficiency and economic wealth”.

Needless to say, this idea did not materialise, as Rome didn’t like it and Switzerland is already pretty full.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland’s cantons are so powerful







Helena Bachmann in Geneva 2021/10/10 08:18

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