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EXPLAINED: Why does Switzerland’s president only serve one year?

On Saturday, Ignazio Cassis will become the country’s 174th president. His term will end on December 31st, 2022. Why do Swiss presidents serve only for 12 months?

Ignazio Cassis will be Switzerland’s president until December 31, 2022. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Ignazio Cassis will be Switzerland’s president until December 31, 2022. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Switzerland’s rotating one-year presidency is probably surprising for someone from the United States or a number of other countries where heads of state are elected (or sometimes self-appointed) for several terms.

But then, Switzerland’s entire political system is unusual when compared to that of other nations. It is not only because all the power — to make or repeal laws, for example — lies with the citizens rather than legislators, but also because the form of the government itself is not conducive to unilateral decision-making.

Again, unlike other countries, Switzerland is ‘managed’ by seven cabinet members representing the country’s major parties — the Federal Council — each of whom heads a federal department and is in line for one-year presidency based on their seniority (years served on the Council, not age).

When their turn comes up, they are elected by the United Federal Assembly — that is, both chambers of the parliament. This is mostly ceremonial, since everyone knows ahead of time who is in line for presidency in a given year.

Basically, it goes like this: ‘if it’s 2022, it must be Cassis.’

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Who is Switzerland’s new President Ignazio Cassis?

A year is long enough

The 12-month rotation, a system that has been in place since the first Swiss president, Jonas Furrer, took office in 1848 (and left it in 1849) serves to ensure that nobody gets too comfortable or power-hungry in this position.

This is particularly relevant in a country governed collectively, rather than individually (see below).

Some duties, but not much power

Once elected, the president is not the head of state. Probably because seven heads are believed to be better than one, the entire Federal Council acts as the collective head of state. So it would not be wrong to say that Switzerland is a country with seven heads.

This notion may be difficult to grasp, but the entire system is based on the premise that all seven members are equal in status and nobody wields more power or has more clout than others.

The Federal Council with, on the right, the chancellor. Official Swiss government photo

If there is any back-stabbing or animosity among federal councillors, the public is not privy to it. Officially, everyone gets along  just fine (despite the sometimes divergent political views) and presents a unified front. Terms like ‘consensus and collegiality’ are often used to describe how the seven members make decisions.

So what exactly do Swiss presidents do during their term?

According to the government site, “he or she chairs the Federal Council meetings and mediates in the case of disputes. In urgent situations the president can order precautionary measures. In the unlikely event that the Federal Council is unable to hold either an ordinary or an extraordinary meeting, the president may take a unilateral decision” — the latter being the only bit of “power” the president can wield.

Other than that “Presidents of the Swiss Confederation have special representational duties during their year of office. Traditionally they give a speech at New Year and on Swiss National Day on 1 August, which is broadcast on radio and television.”

“They also welcome the diplomatic corps – all foreign ambassadors to Switzerland – at a New Year’s reception in the Federal Palace. Since the 1990s it has been usual for the President of the Swiss Confederation to go on official visits abroad. The president is also responsible for fostering relations with the cantons.”

And even during their term, the presidents still head their respective federal departments. In case of the outgoing president, Guy Parmelin, it is the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research, while the incoming one, Ignazio Cassis, oversees the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Outgoing president Guy Parmelin. Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / POOL / AFP

Once their terms are over, the presidents go, mostly unceremoniously, back to their duties as federal councillors and department heads.

And if they hang around long enough, their presidential turn will come again in seven years’ time.

In fact, a federal councillor can be elected several times to this position, depending on the length of their term on the Federal Council.

Among the current members, Ueli Maurer and Simonetta Sommaruga have already held the position twice. 

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

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For members


UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?