Switzerland Federal state
History and trends
Switzerland is a federal parliamentary state with a strong tradition of direct democracy.
Switzerland is variously classed as lying in Central or Western Europe. Its capital, Bern, is sometimes called the “federal city”. Its shares borders with Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east. Zurich and Geneva are two major economic centres and global cities.
Switzerland’s constitution was adopted on 18 April 1999. The country has a long tradition of political and military neutrality and did not join the United Nations until 2002. Switzerland is divided into four cultural and linguistic regions and has four national languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh.
Switzerland’s cantons are sovereign by virtue of their respective constitutions, but are not independent. The term “Confederation” does not accurately describe the current federal system. The distribution of powers between the Confederation and the cantons is enshrined in the Federal Constitution, which lays down the limits of their respective sovereignties. Some powers are granted explicitly to the cantons or to the Confederation. Anything not explicitly delegated to the Confederation comes under the remit of the cantons.
As such, Switzerland’s system of local government is founded on the principle of subsidiarity.
Local level :
Each canton is divided into municipalities.
Several cantons have an intermediate tier known as districts.
The district is a territorial subdivision that exists in many cantons and forms the intermediate level between the canton and the municipality. Each canton is free to decide its own internal organisation.
There are districts in 11 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. Because of the country’s federal system, the districts play a different role from one canton to the next. In most cases they are little more than administrative, electoral or judicial districts, with each district having just one court. In the Canton of Grisons, the districts have sovereign tax-levying and political powers.
Each district is formed of several municipalities (from 1 to as many as 75 in the Jura-Nord district of the Canton of Vaud), except in the Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, where the term “district” is analogous with “municipality” and forms the smallest territorial subdivision. In the Canton of Ticino (and, previously, in the Cantons of Grisons, Thurgau and Vaud), the districts are subdivided into “circles”. The Canton of Valais also has two half-districts.
Of the 26 cantons, 15 are not subdivided into districts (in the sense that there is no intermediate tier between the canton and the municipality).
For historical and geographical reasons, 8 cantons have never had such subdivisions (all of them are small cantons): Uri, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Glarus, Zug, Appenzell Innerrhoden (where the term “district” actually refers to municipalities), Basel and Geneva.
In May 2006, the Canton of Schwytz considered abolishing the districts, but the plans were ultimately rejected. The same happened in the Canton of Fribourg in 2010.
Plans to disband the districts were also floated in the Canton of Valais in 2014.
On 24 September 2017, voters in the Canton of Neuchâtel voted around 58% in favour of abolishing the six districts and establishing a single electoral constituency covering the entire canton. At present, there are 87 districts across Switzerland.
In addition, the country has 2,240 municipalities – the smallest unit of local government. The number has been falling steadily for several years as a result of mergers, especially in the Cantons of Vaud, Fribourg and Ticino, and through the merger of 25 municipalities in the Canton of Glarus to form just 3. There were 3,095 municipalities in 1960, 2,899 in 2000, and 2,596 in 2010.
Regional level :
Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons. Each canton has its own constitution, parliament, government and courts. The cantons vary in size between 37 km² and 7105 km², and in population between 15,900 and 1,463,000 (2015).
Switzerland’s cantons are sovereign by virtue of their respective constitutions, but are no longer independent as they once were. The term “Confederation” reflects Switzerland’s past but does not accurately describe the current federal system.
The distribution of powers between the Confederation and the cantons is enshrined in the Federal Constitution, which lays down the limits of their respective sovereignties. Some powers are granted explicitly to the cantons or to the Confederation. Anything not explicitly delegated to the Confederation comes under the remit of the cantons.
Some policy areas are managed exclusively at the cantonal level.
These include education (except for the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology and the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport Magglingen), hospital management (except for municipal and private hospitals), the majority of road building and maintenance (except for motorways and national roads), the police (but not the army), other social security contributions and tax inspection.
The cantons’ powers are therefore limited to specific areas, and always by the principle that Federal law takes precedence, or by the principle of derogation in Federal law (unlike the principle of the “equipollence of norms” in Belgium).