Switzerland's political structure consists of the Confederation, 26 cantons and over 2,000 communes. Political and legislative powers are distributed across these three levels in a way that grants each of them the greatest possible autonomy and brings a diverse range of political stakeholders together under one roof. Cantons act as constituent states and have their own constitutions, parliaments, governments and courts.

The empty chamber of the Council of States at the Federal Palace.
In the Council of States – the upper house of the United Federal Assembly – each canton has two representatives. © Petar Marjanovic, Wikimedia

For historical reasons, Switzerland is officially known as the Swiss Confederation. The name has its origins in the country's founding myth, which tells of the oath taken by its three founding cantons. Switzerland has, however, been a federal state since 1848, with the 'federal city' of Bern as its de facto capital. The Confederation shares power with the cantons (constituent states) and the communes. All three political levels have a legislature (for law-making) and an executive (for government). Only the Confederation and the cantons have judicial powers (courts).

Diversity in unity

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, federalism is one of the cornerstones of the Swiss political system. Federalism strives to integrate citizens into the political process as much as possible. Smaller communes are run by locals in their free time.

To ensure that the 26 cantons are equally represented at the federal level despite their differences in size, culture and religion, each canton sends two representatives to the Council of States, one of the two chambers of the Federal Assembly. The six half-cantons 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.

Autonomy as a guiding principle

Within the state structure, power is allocated based on the principle of subsidiarity. Communes, which are the smallest political entity, are accorded as much autonomy as possible. This is done so that they can carry out as many tasks as possible themselves. Tasks are only delegated to the next level up – that is, the cantons – when this makes sense. The same applies when delegating to the highest level, which is the Confederation.

The communes, for example, maintain and manage their own infrastructure, including roads and public buildings such as schools. The cantons take on higher-level duties including the school system and policing, while the Confederation is responsible for national security and foreign policy. Each of the three raises its own taxes to help manage the tasks allocated to it.