Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons, which are themselves divided into more than 2,300 communes. The Confederation, the cantons and communes share political and legislative powers.

Parliamentary chamber: the National Council
Parliamentary chamber: the National Council © FDFA, Presence Switzerland

Although its official name is the Swiss Confederation (for historical reasons), Switzerland has, in fact, been a federal state since 1848. Power is shared between the Confederation (the central state based in the capital city of Bern), the cantons (constituent states) and the communes. All three political levels have a legislative (law-making) and an executive (government). Only the Confederation and the cantons have judicial powers (courts).

Respect for minorities

In a country with different religious and linguistic groups, the federalism model makes it possible to accommodate both national unity and cultural diversity. Together with direct democracy, which offers the people the option of launching popular initiatives and referendums, federalism is one of the cornerstones of the Swiss political system.

To ensure that the 26 cantons are equally represented at the federal level, each canton sends two representatives to the Council of States, one of the two chambers of the Federal Assembly. The six half-cantons are an exception to this rule, and can send only one elected representative to Bern. All 26 cantons have the right to launch a popular referendum on a piece of federal legislation provided that at least eight cantons express support for it.

Division of powers

The powers of the Confederation are limited to those areas explicitly entrusted to it by the Federal Constitution. Responsibility for all other matters, such as education, health and policing, fall to the cantons, which enjoy a high degree of policy-making autonomy in these areas. As for the communes, their responsibilities are explicitly granted by either the canton or the Confederation. However, the communes may legislate on matters that are not covered by cantonal legislation.