Principles and Functioning of Swiss Federalism

The Federal Palace, seat of the Federal Assembly and the Federal CouncilBy Pazit Polak – originally posted to Flickr as Bern 104, CC BY 2.0,

Federalism Through Integration

A federal state differs from a unitary one – i.e., one that is governed from the top-down – in that the former tends to transfer governmental tasks onto lower administrative and territorial authorities. The federal state’s powers come directly from the people. In Switzerland, it is the people who decide about the form and the function of the state, which is founded on the communes and the cantons. These subnational units are federalised and deprived of only those competencies that they voluntarily and exclusively transferred to the federation. Nevertheless, the majority of the governmental power is transferred from the federal level to the lower tiers in line with the principle of subsidiarity. The territorial authorities that make up the federal state are granted such an extensive autonomy in the fields of constitutionality, legislation, executive and law-making that they can be virtually considered as separate states, although they lack any competencies concerning home affairs and defence.

Switzerland is the first federation in the world that came into being as a result of tightening the relations between many sovereign canton-states. Swiss federalism is therefore an example of a federalism through integration, while the name “Confederation” has merely a symbolic meaning.

Switzerland as a model of “federalism through integration” means that, in the moment of establishing the Swiss state, the cantons had to give up certain part of their competencies in favour of the new political entity. When discussing Swiss federalism, one should always take into account the specificity of this country. Despite its limited area, Switzerland is characterised by deep multiculturalism, with four linguistic regions and two dominating religions. The small size of the Swiss territory, as well as its cultural, historical, and religious diversity, have shaped the peculiar character of the country’s federalism. Firstly, the Swiss rejected the idea of creating a monocultural state with only one official language and religion. Secondly, they managed to build a type of democracy that enables it to divide power not only between Catholics and Protestants, but also between the German-speaking majority and the French, Italian, and Rhaeto-Romance minorities. Therefore, it is a country characterised, by great will, by the building of an independent nation based on mutual respect for its minorities and citizens.

As it is known, nationalism is concerned with an ethnic tradition and the desire of part of a given country to become independent from its whole. In Switzerland, however, it was completely the opposite: citizens of the cantons, who represented different languages, ethnic and religious groups, developed a belief about the necessity of establishing a political entity that would not be based on the common tradition and culture, which, today, may make their country seem to be an artificial creation. In order to properly understand Swiss federalism, one cannot forget that the state comprises of twenty-six cantons [The following three cantons are divided into half-cantons: Basel, Appenzell, and Unterwalden [author’s note]], which, to a large extent, are autonomous and proudly regard themselves as “republics” or “states.” It is the cantons that are the foundation of the federation, and not the linguistic communities as it is commonly thought. All but four cantons are linguistically homogenous, which means that there is still a risk of a conflict if their citizens decide to form a separate faction of cantons. However, the conflicts between the cantons are very rare. One of the reasons is the fact that the boundary between the French-speaking part of Switzerland and the German-speaking one runs through three cantons that recognise two official languages. Another factor important for Swiss federalism is that the boundaries between the region dominated by one religion do not coincide with the boundaries of the linguistic regions or with the cantons’ borders. Switzerland has German-speaking cantons dominated by Catholics and French-speaking ones dominated by Protestants.

An additional important element is that Switzerland has no official capital. The federal authority has its seat in Bern but the Federal Court is located in Lausanne. Bern is ranked only as the 4th largest city in the country. Zurich, Basel, and Geneva exceed Bern not only in size of the population, but also in scale of industry and banking. The factors that foster the cooperation between the cantons are: the concentration of banks’ headquarters in all major cities, the fact that all of the four linguistic regions have their own tourist resorts, and that the major factories are located in, at least, two linguistic regions. Since there are many links (linguistic, religious, economic, and cultural) between the cantons, the Swiss policy is characterised by forming many changeable coalitions that not only cooperate, but also compete. None of the coalitions create a long-lasting majority, and none of them dominate in any area. As Christoph Büchi rightly states, the battles for the “Röstigraben” [The term Rösigraben was coined during the First World War when the citizens of the French part supported the Entente, whereas the citizens of the German part supported the Three Caesars’ Alliance, with the German Empire as the leading one. Strangely enough, society’s sympathies coincided exactly with the boundary between the linguistic parts of Switzerland, as if the boundary between the German-speaking part and the French-speaking one was also a mental barrier between two separate nations. Today, the term is used in in the context of analysing the results of referenda [author’s note]], should not be taken literally since the unity of Switzerland is guaranteed regardless of the outcome.

Switzerland’s entrepreneurship and economic policy flourish also due to its openness to diversity. Although Switzerland is commonly associated with specific products, like watches and clocks, chocolate, cheese and banks, the country’s success results from the way in which various inventions and innovations, as well as the cantons, are linked with each other. It is this typically Swiss diversity (“a multitude in unity”), stemming partially from federalism, that marks the country’s innovative character – from tourism, medical technology, production of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, to banking or the watch and clock industry.

An important aspect of federalism is the bicameralism of the federal parliament, which significantly differs from that of a unitary state’s parliament. The Swiss parliament – just like any other parliament of a federal state – comprises of two chambers. The first one, the National Council, represents the nation. Its election and the distribution of seats depends on the size of the cantons’ population. When it comes to the election of the second chamber, the Council of States, every canton is given two seats regardless of its population size (half-cantons are given one seat each). Even though the legislative procedure can be initiated in any of the chambers, the enactment of a given law requires their mutual approval, which emphasises the significance of the cantons in federal decision-making.

It should be added that the Swiss engage in the so-called “federal dialogue.” It is a forum used for regular political meetings (usually twice a year) between delegations of the Federal Council and the Conference of Cantonal Governments, which represents the cantons. The goal of the federal dialogue is the harmonisation of the federal and the cantonal policy during the time of initiating and carrying out new projects. The governing principle in this context is: dialogue is the source of a compromise. One example is the construction of the Alpine Tunnels, partially financed by the federation, which required many difficult negotiations between the federation and the cantons.


Subsidiarity – the Role of the Cantons and the Communes

A crucial element of the Swiss political system is the principle of subsidiarity, which grants the communes and the cantons all powers that do not belong explicitly to the federal authorities.

As has already been mentioned, Switzerland is a federal state consisting of three administrative levels: the federation, 26 cantons, and about 2850 communes. The decentralised division of the authorities’ tasks and the tendency to carry them out on the lowest possible level, as dictated by the principle of subsidiarity, are the foundation of the state that has existed in a virtually unchanged form since 1848.

The Swiss federal state is a direct democracy in which the people hold the highest political authority, and citizens make laws through referenda. The universal nation-wide suffrage (both active and passive) was established in 1848 for men and in 1971 for women. Democracy, however, does not naturally invite everyone to take part in political life, and, sometimes, it may even exclude them from it. That was exactly the case in Switzerland: adult men often used their democratic privilege to deny voting rights to women. Since the 1880s, Swiss women had demanded the right to vote in an increasingly stronger manner. Men’s opposition was unwavering and – under direct democracy – in full accordance with the law. This confirms the notion that democracy and progress do not always go hand in hand.

The crucial part of the current constitution of the Swiss Confederation is Article 3, which essentially determines the federal and the subsidiary character of the state: “The Cantons are sovereign except to the extent that their sovereignty is limited by the Federal Constitution. They exercise all rights that are not vested in the Confederation.”

It is just a one phrase, but it contains the whole essence of Swiss federalism and the principle of subsidiarity. All the more important is the interpretation of this article, which suggests that all of the state’s institutions act within the law and in good faith, whereas their competencies are divided between the federal and the cantonal authorities. The former carry out only those tasks that are explicitly transferred to them by the constitution, and – since both levels of power mutually overlap – competence disputes are resolved through negotiations or mediation. The duties concerning the application of the federation’s regulations are quite often transferred to the cantons, although it is not a rule. This decentralised federalism founded upon the principle of subsidiarity means that all decisions are made at the grass-roots level with the direct participation of citizens. The decisions that cannot be made on the communal level are made by cantonal authorities. In many areas, it is a rule that the federal government makes the law, but its implementation is left to the cantons, which do so according to their own requirements. A strong federalist tradition compels the authorities of the individual cantons to focus on their own problems and to abstain from criticising the actions of the other cantons. It can be compared to a principle according to which competing companies do not criticise each other but carefully examine their methods. If a given method proves effective, every company sets out to implement it itself.

The cantons cannot be compared to the administrative regions, provinces, or districts in other democratic countries, e.g., voivodeships in Poland. They are essentially independent territorial units resembling states, with their own constitutions, and referring to themselves precisely as “states” (Ger. Staat, Fr. Etat). The cantons have virtually all the powers of a state, except for those that they voluntarily ceded in favour of the federation, such as defence and foreign policy. According to the general political doctrine of Switzerland, apart from observing their own, sovereignly enacted laws, the cantons are obliged to implement the general federal laws. As a result, the Swiss state has an exceptionally low number of conflicting or mutually obstructing regulations that are in force on the federal, cantonal, and communal level simultaneously.

After transferring certain competencies in favour of the federation, the cantons’ numerous freedoms from before 1848 were significantly limited. However, despite the fact that the federation was gaining an increasing number of powers, the cantons did retain their strong position. It should not be forgotten that a major part of the federal revenues is distributed among the cantons. In the early days of the Swiss state’s existence, the confederation’s and the cantons’ budgets were clearly separated. Every canton was obliged to carry out its duties with its own funds. The cantons did not receive any funds from the federation even for the realisation of the federal tasks and had to rely solely on their own tax revenues. Currently, the federation is obliged to share a part of its revenue with the cantons.

This results directly from the nature of the Swiss tax system, which is considered as one of the most complex in the world. Another cause is the diversity of the tax rates in different parts of the country and the cantons. Switzerland has three types of the income tax, which stems from the principle of subsidiarity: the communal, the cantonal, and the federal. Every Swiss canton and commune sets its own rate of cantonal and communal income tax. Each canton and each commune has is own tax act, which determines their revenues and assets. The system fosters competition between the cantons and the communes who try to attract companies and wealthy citizens with better tax rates.

The most important factor of the cantonal autonomy is that the cantons can adopt their own constitution, provided that it is in accordance with the provisions of the Federal Constitution, and that it strengthens the unity of the federation.

It is worthwhile to mention the basic political and legal factors that ensure the cantons’ autonomy:

First, the existence of the cantons is guaranteed by the constitution. The federal legislators cannot create or dissolve any canton against its will. It is guaranteed by Article 53 of the Federal Constitution. In order to change the number of the cantons, or even to modify their territory, consent is required on the part of the community concerned, which means a long and complex procedure, including a cantonal referendum.

Second, the cantons organise their political life autonomously. Each establishes its own authorities, distributes competencies among them and determines rights, as well as duties, of its citizens. The federal law imposes only several basic principles that essentially come down to the ideas of equality and democracy. Apart from those principles, the cantons have absolute freedom in organising their internal political life.

Third, the cantons are free to elect their authorities. The Federal Council does not impose or suggest any candidates to the cantons and does not take part in elections of deputies or members of cantonal parliaments. It also lacks any powers to dissolve a canton’s parliament or dismiss its government.

Fourth, the cantons are not subject to the Federation’s political control. The cantonal constitutions require the approval of the Federal Assembly. The Federal Council monitors only certain cantonal laws. The majority of judicial decisions and rulings can be appealed before the Federal Supreme Court. These supervisions, however, differ from those of unitary states in that they are limited to the matter of legality, and not the jurisdiction. The Federal Council can, for example, refuse to accept a given law only when it decides that it violates the federal regulations.


Switzerland’s subsidiary federalism is certainly a complex and costly system. In practice, however, it enables citizens to take a real and authentic part in the state’s political life. It gives the individuals eligible to vote the satisfaction of deciding jointly about matters that concern them directly. Of course, the disputes and mediations between the specific levels of federal authority occur on a daily basis. An example of that is the problem of accommodating the immigrants who have come to Switzerland. The decision to admit them are made by the federal authorities. However, they are placed, naturally, on the territory of specific cantons. Some cantons oppose, while others agree without putting forward any additional conditions. This gives rise to the problem of financing the immigrants’ residency. Some cantons demand support from the federation since they lack the means to provide for the masses of newcomers.

Local and political affiliation is deeply rooted in the mind of a Swiss citizen, who, primarily, identifies strongly with the commune and the canton and, only later, with the federation. A typical Swiss considers a different canton as a “foreign country,” and people very reluctantly move from one canton to another.

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