Swiss history at a glance

The Swiss state dates back to 1291 when representatives of the three forest cantons of Uri Schwyz and Unterwalden signed the defence pact the 'Eternal Alliance'. The pact united them, and soon other cantons, in the struggle against foreign rule by the Habsburgs who then held the German imperial throne. Under the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, European countries recognized Switzerland's independence from the Holy Roman Empire and its neutrality.

In 1798 armies of the French Revolution conquered Switzerland. The Treaty of Vienna and the Second Peace of Paris in 1815 re-established Swiss independence and the powers participating in the Congress of Vienna agreed to recognize Swiss permanent neutrality. Despite the strategic importance of Switzerland, its ‘permanent neutrality’ has never since been violated. The country has not entered any military alliances, and it avoided participation in both World Wars.

Since 1959 government posts have been divided between the members of the Social Democratic Party, the Radical Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic People’s Party and the Swiss People’s Party. This coalition holds more than 80 percent of the seats in the lower house of the Federal Assembly, and all of the seats in the upper house. The ruling coalition dominated the National Council at elections held between 1975 and 1995.

The enfranchisement of women in federal elections was only approved at a referendum in February 1971. However, the half-cantons of Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden did not introduce female suffrage until in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Finally, in October 1984 the Federal Assembly elected Switzerland’s first female cabinet minister, Dr Elisabeth Kopp, a leading member of the Radical Democratic Party.

Politics in the new era

The federal assembly (Bundesversammlung/Assemblée fédérale/Asamblea Federale/Assemblea Federala) has two chambers: the national council (Nationalrat/Conseil National/Consiglio Nazionale/Cussegl Naziunal) and the the council of states (Ständerat/Conseil des Etats/Consiglio degli Stati/Cussegl dals Stadis) . Executive authority is exercised on a collegial basis by the Federal Council (cabinet), with a president who serves, for only one year at a time, as ‘the first among equals’.

Owing to the restricted powers of the federal council, initiatives and referendums form the core of the political process. In Switzerland, there are binding referendums at federal, cantonal and municipal level. They are a central feature of Swiss political life. Voters have the right to call for a popular referendum on every bill decided by parliament, the only requirement is that 50,000 signatures be obtained, which is relatively easy in a country of 7 million inhabitants. The voters also have the final say on constitutional amendments as all constitutional amendments decided by parliament must be submitted to the voters. A minimum of 100,000 voters can also submit a constitutional amendment of their own, which will first be debated by parliament but finally decided in a popular referendum. The votes on referendums are always held on a Sunday, typically three or four times a year, and in most cases, the votes concern several referendums at the same time, often at different political levels (federal, cantonal, municipal). Elections are as well often combined with referendums. However, the turnout for referendums is generally very low, about 20 to 30 percent unless there is an election. The decisions made in referendums tend to be conservative. Citizens' initiatives are usually not passed.

The possibility of referendums forces the parliament to search for a compromise between the major interest groups. In many cases, the mere threat of a referendum or of an initiative is enough to make the parliament adjust a law. The referendums arguably work to slow politics down. Conversely, the significance of direct democracy in the Swiss system is often cited as the reason for the weakness of Swiss political parties and the relatively low significance attached to normal elections. This is because, given the prominence of direct democracy, political parties are not solely responsible for controlling the federal agenda. In addition, direct democracy often raises crosscutting issues on which members of political parties might not be in agreement. Between 1848 and February 2004, 517 referendums were held. Since 1990, referendums have been held on such diverse issues as: banning the building of nuclear power stations; building new Alpine railways; a new federal constitution; controlling immigration; abolishing the army; joining the United Nations; shortening working hours; and opening up electricity markets.

Switzerland began to emerge from its traditional isolation in the early 1990s. In May 1992 the Government’s proposal for Switzerland to join the IMF and the World Bank was approved in a referendum. On the following day, the Federal Council announced that it was to present an application for membership of the EC. Despite the fact that Switzerland has long been the headquarters of many international organizations, the country did not join the UN until 2002, owing to concerns that it would conflict with the country’s traditional neutrality.

In the early years of the 21st century the stability of the ‘grand coalition’ that had governed Switzerland since 1959 was increasingly threatened by the growing influence of the Swiss People’s Party. Under the so-called ‘magic formula’, government seats were shared among the coalition partners, with the Social Democratic Party, the Radical Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic People’s Party each receiving two seats and the Swiss People’s Party receiving only one. At the general election held in October 2003 the Swiss People’s Party received the largest share of the votes cast and thus for the first time became the largest party in the National Council, with 55 seats. The party demanded a second seat on the federal council to reflect this and threatened to withdraw from the coalition, effectively ending the era of consensus politics, if its demand was not met. Consequently, for the first time the composition of the governing coalition was changed in 44 years.


Recent History (Switzerland) , in Europa World online . London, Routledge.