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A foreigner’s guide to understanding Swiss politics in five minutes

In view of Sunday’s much-publicised referendum where the Covid-19 legislation was strongly approved by Swiss voters, you may be wondering about the country’s political system. This is what you should know about it.

Switzerland holds referenda four times a year, with several issues often decided at each ballot
Frequent voting is a unique feature of Swiss political system. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

In many ways, Switzerland’s political system is different from that in most other countries, and it may become confusing to newcomers (or even those who have been here for a while). 

For instance, foreigners in Switzerland probably became more familiar with some politicians during the Covid pandemic, as their  (often masked) faces — like that of Health Minister Alain Berset — were frequently in the news.

Also the term “Federal Council” has often been mentioned in the media during the health crisis.

You may also have been perplexed by the fact that at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 Switzerland had one president — Simonetta Sommaruga — and this year there is another, Guy Parmelin, without an election having taken place the meantime.

This is just one aspect of Swiss politics that is unique in Europe and possibly elsewhere as well.

That’s because unlike most other nations, Switzerland doesn’t have a single president or a prime minister. Instead, it has the executive branch, or Federal Council, whose seven members  serve as the collective head of state.

They represent the four major parties and political leanings in the parliament — the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to the right, Social Democrats to the left, as well as The Center and The Liberals in the middle.

The 2021 Federal Council. Photo by

The number of seats each party holds corresponds to the number of seats they have in the parliament. Therefore, the SVP has two members in the Federal Council (current president Guy Parmelin and Ueli Maurer), as has the Social Democratic Party (Berset and Simonetta Sommaruga). Others, like Viola Amherd are from The Center party, while Karin Sutter-Keller and Ignazio Cassis represent the Liberals.

Each federal councillor also heads a government department.

Despite undoubtedly having a divergence of opinions due to their different party affiliations, all the members of the Federal Council make the decisions jointly, based on the principle of collegiality and consensus — that is, what is best for Switzerland and not necessarily for their own parties.

If there is a disagreement among the councillors in private, we, the public, are not privy to it, as they are mandated to present a united front.

The Federal Council is elected by the parliament every four years; parliament members, on the other hand (both the lower house, the National Council, and the upper chamber, the Council of States), are elected by the people.

MPs in Swiss parliament propose new legislation. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

And what about the president?

The President of Switzerland is elected for a one-year term by the parliament.  However, he or she is not  the head of the government, has no special power, and their role is to chair the Federal Council meetings, mediate in the case of disputes, and represent Switzerland abroad.

Since the presidency changes in a blink of an eye, it is not surprising many Swiss don’t even know who their president is in a given year.

Who decides what laws are implemented in the country — the Federal Council or the the parliament?


And this is where the Swiss system is unique, as in Switzerland all the political power belongs to the people.

Unlike other nations, where elected officials make decisions on behalf of their constituents, in Switzerland a centuries-old tradition of direct democracy gives people — rather than lawmakers — the power to shape local and national policies.

No legislation can be enacted here until citizens approve it in a referendum. In this way, they can have a say in a political process that impacts their lives.

The Covid-19 law for example, was initially approved by voters on June 9th.

READ MORE: Swiss voters back Covid pass law

People can also create their own laws (within reason, of course). Any group or a citizen over over the age of 18 can launch an initiative by collecting 100,000 signatures within 18 months. Petitions must conform with legal requirements— anyone who signs it must be eligible to vote in Switzerland and provide their address for identification purposes.

Sunday’s vote was an example of such an initiative. A group called Friends of the Constitution launched an initiative to repeal a revision of the Covid law that pertains specifically to the Covid certificate. They were, however, defeated.

But if an initiative is approved by the voters — as the nursing initiative was on Sunday — the Federal Council must figure out a way to implement it.

READ MORE: Referendum: Why are the Swiss voting on nursing conditions?

The Swiss typically vote in referendums four times a year — more than any other nation.

However, if a piece of legislation that the parliament and the Federal Council want to enact is rejected by voters, the government has no choice but accept the defeat.

They have to adhere to the words an American politician famously uttered after he lost an election in the 1960s: “The people have spoken — the bastards”.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.