Politics For Members

What you should know about Switzerland's federal elections on Sunday

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
What you should know about Switzerland's federal elections on Sunday
All the members of the parliament must be (re) elected in October. (hoto by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

On Sunday October 22nd, the Swiss will elect 246 members their Federal Assembly — that is, the higher and lower chamber of the parliament. Why is this an important event in the country?


The Swiss go to the polls to vote in referendums about four times a year, so the act of casting votes is not exactly a novelty for them.

But elections happen only once every four years, so while it is a ‘regular’ occurrence in Switzerland, it is not quite as frequent as referendums, where people weigh in on different issues rather than elect their legislators.

How exactly does the process work?

In Switzerland, the people elect their MPs who, in turn, elect members of the Federal Council when and if one of the seven members steps down.

This year, the newly-elected deputies will choose the replacement for the departing Health Minister (and current president) Alain Berset, who announced he would step down on December 31st, 2023, when his term comes to an end. 

On Sunday, October 22nd, it will be up to the newly elected parliament to choose a new minister from among MPs willing to take Berset’s place on the seven-member Federal Council. 

So far, no candidates have come forward, however.

This is not an unusual situation: at the end of 2022, two ministers, Simonetta Sommaruga and Ueli Maurer, stepped down; Elisabeth Baume-Schneider and Albert Rösti replaced them on the Federal Council.

Who will Swiss citizens be voting for in October?

They will be voting for candidates to the National Council (the lower house of the federal parliament) and the Council of States (the higher chamber).

The National Council  is composed of  200 people; the number of representatives sent by each canton depends on the size of its population.

“As a rule of thumb, each canton may send one elected representative to the National Council for roughly every 40,000 inhabitants,” according to a government website

The constitution guarantees at least one seat per canton, even if the canton has fewer than 40,000 residents. Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, Appenzell-Innerrhoden, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Uri and Glarus send one National Council member each, while Zurich, the most heavily populated canton, currently has 35 seats.


The Council of States, on the other hand, represents the cantons and comprises 46 members, who, like their National Council counterparts,  are also elected by the people for a four-year term.

Regardless of their population size,  the cantons send two deputies, with the exception of the six half-cantons of Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, Appenzell-Innerrhoden, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Land, which send one deputy each, the government platform explains.

While Council of States MPs represent their cantons, however, they are not bound to follow or comply with any instructions from their cantonal government or parliament.

Though they all form a Federal Assembly (parliament) the two chambers make most decisions separately.

These decisions become final only if both chambers reach the same conclusion.

If that doesn’t happen, the two chambers must negotiate in order to reach a common agreement.

Consensus must be reached even though deputies don't always see eye to eye: they come from parties ranging from ultra conservative to ultra  liberal: the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the Social Democratic Party (SP), the Centre (an alliance of the Christian Democrat People's Party and the Conservative Democratic Party) The Liberals, the Greens, and Liberal Greens. 

READ ALSO: A foreigner's guide to understanding Swiss politics in five minutes


What is interesting about Swiss MPs?

Switzerland’s lawmakers are not career politicians. Most of them have “regular” jobs in their home districts, in addition to their part-time parliamentary duties.

There are many lawyers, but the ranks also include teachers, doctors, farmers, secretaries, architects, chefs, post-doctoral candidates — virtually every profession that is in line with what their constituents do.

This system of ‘part-time’ MPs works particularly well in Switzerland, as  Swiss people believe in the grass-roots notion of “citizen legislature,”which means being close to their constituents and keeping one foot in the ‘real’ world. This allows them to have a better grasp of everyday lives of their constituents and the issues that affect them

Can foreign nationals stand for election to either of the two houses of the parliament?

Foreigners have no right to either vote or be candidate for public office on a federal level, so they can’t participate in this political process.

Several cantons do, however, allow this involvement on a local level.

Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura permit non-citizens to vote, elect officials, and stand for election at communal level. Conditions vary from one canton to another, but in most cases a certain length of stay and/or a residence permit are required.

However, a number of MPs in both houses of the parliament have foreign roots, and many hold dual passports —Swiss, in addition to one from their country of origin.

This is just a general overview of the upcoming election; we will cover this topic in more detail closer to the date.


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