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What exactly does your Swiss commune do?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
What exactly does your Swiss commune do?
Swiss communes large and small have a long 'to-do' list. Photo: Pixabay

Whether you live in a city, a small town, or even a village, your Swiss commune has some defined roles and responsibilities under Switzerland’s unique federalist system.


The Swiss version of federalism, which was introduced in 1848 and is still in place today, defines the powers of the federal and cantonal governments.

READ ALSO: Why Switzerland’s cantons are so powerful

Cantons, in turn, assign specific tasks to their communes, which constitute the smallest political entity in the country.

Principle of subsidiarity

Another feature of Swiss federalism is the so-called subsidiarity, which could be taken to mean ‘subordination’ but in the Swiss version it is more like a system where bigger entities look after the smaller ones.

As the government describes it, “under the principle of subsidiarity, nothing that can be done at a lower political level should be done at a higher level. If, for example, a commune is unable to deal with a certain task, the next higher political entity, i.e. the canton, has a duty to provide support."

And the federal government “only undertakes tasks that the cantons are unable to perform.”

In other words, there is no encroachment on anyone’s rights or sovereignty, unless assistance is needed and requested. 

Mergers are the communal new trend

As of January 1st, 2024, Switzerland is made up of 2,131 communes —that is five less than in 2023 and 162 fewer than 10 years ago.

What happened to them?

They did not just disappear as such; instead, some smaller ones merged together into a single entity for practical reasons, such as to cut operational costs by reducing the number of employees, for instance.


Small communes outnumber big ones

As you have probably noticed by now, small towns and villages far outnumber large municipalities like Zurich and Geneva.
They all constitute Switzerland’s smallest political entities, but, regardless of their size, communes have a great deal of autonomy in managing the affairs on their own territories (unless they are not able to do so, in which case the above-mentioned system of subsidiarity kicks in.)

How do they function politically?

Around a fifth of the country’s communes, primarily those that are cities or large towns, have their own parliaments whose role is to debate and adopt communal legislation.   

The other four-fifths of the communes reach their decisions in the direct-democracy fashion that is deeply engrained in Switzerland — such as communal assemblies, in which all local residents are entitled to participate, express their views, and vote (the last right is reserved for Swiss citizens only).  

They also elect a communal council to implement local decisions.


What exactly do communes do?

No matter the size, they have a long list of tasks to perform.

For instance, they manage a register of residents, organise and maintain their own fire brigades, civil defence units and police forces (the latter two mostly in bigger communes).

They are also responsible for schools on their territories, as well as local energy supplies, municipal roads and parking, taxation, and infrastructure planning and upkeep, among other tasks.

In essence, they are microcosms of cantonal and federal operations.


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