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A foreigner’s guide to understanding Swiss politics in five minutes

In view of Sunday’s much-publicised referendum where the Covid-19 legislation was strongly approved by Swiss voters, you may be wondering about the country’s political system. This is what you should know about it.

Switzerland holds referenda four times a year, with several issues often decided at each ballot
Frequent voting is a unique feature of Swiss political system. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

In many ways, Switzerland’s political system is different from that in most other countries, and it may become confusing to newcomers (or even those who have been here for a while). 

For instance, foreigners in Switzerland probably became more familiar with some politicians during the Covid pandemic, as their  (often masked) faces — like that of Health Minister Alain Berset — were frequently in the news.

Also the term “Federal Council” has often been mentioned in the media during the health crisis.

You may also have been perplexed by the fact that at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 Switzerland had one president — Simonetta Sommaruga — and this year there is another, Guy Parmelin, without an election having taken place the meantime.

This is just one aspect of Swiss politics that is unique in Europe and possibly elsewhere as well.

That’s because unlike most other nations, Switzerland doesn’t have a single president or a prime minister. Instead, it has the executive branch, or Federal Council, whose seven members  serve as the collective head of state.

They represent the four major parties and political leanings in the parliament — the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to the right, Social Democrats to the left, as well as The Center and The Liberals in the middle.

The 2021 Federal Council. Photo by

The number of seats each party holds corresponds to the number of seats they have in the parliament. Therefore, the SVP has two members in the Federal Council (current president Guy Parmelin and Ueli Maurer), as has the Social Democratic Party (Berset and Simonetta Sommaruga). Others, like Viola Amherd are from The Center party, while Karin Sutter-Keller and Ignazio Cassis represent the Liberals.

Each federal councillor also heads a government department.

Despite undoubtedly having a divergence of opinions due to their different party affiliations, all the members of the Federal Council make the decisions jointly, based on the principle of collegiality and consensus — that is, what is best for Switzerland and not necessarily for their own parties.

If there is a disagreement among the councillors in private, we, the public, are not privy to it, as they are mandated to present a united front.

The Federal Council is elected by the parliament every four years; parliament members, on the other hand (both the lower house, the National Council, and the upper chamber, the Council of States), are elected by the people.

MPs in Swiss parliament propose new legislation. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

And what about the president?

The President of Switzerland is elected for a one-year term by the parliament.  However, he or she is not  the head of the government, has no special power, and their role is to chair the Federal Council meetings, mediate in the case of disputes, and represent Switzerland abroad.

Since the presidency changes in a blink of an eye, it is not surprising many Swiss don’t even know who their president is in a given year.

Who decides what laws are implemented in the country — the Federal Council or the the parliament?


And this is where the Swiss system is unique, as in Switzerland all the political power belongs to the people.

Unlike other nations, where elected officials make decisions on behalf of their constituents, in Switzerland a centuries-old tradition of direct democracy gives people — rather than lawmakers — the power to shape local and national policies.

No legislation can be enacted here until citizens approve it in a referendum. In this way, they can have a say in a political process that impacts their lives.

The Covid-19 law for example, was initially approved by voters on June 9th.

READ MORE: Swiss voters back Covid pass law

People can also create their own laws (within reason, of course). Any group or a citizen over over the age of 18 can launch an initiative by collecting 100,000 signatures within 18 months. Petitions must conform with legal requirements— anyone who signs it must be eligible to vote in Switzerland and provide their address for identification purposes.

Sunday’s vote was an example of such an initiative. A group called Friends of the Constitution launched an initiative to repeal a revision of the Covid law that pertains specifically to the Covid certificate. They were, however, defeated.

But if an initiative is approved by the voters — as the nursing initiative was on Sunday — the Federal Council must figure out a way to implement it.

READ MORE: Referendum: Why are the Swiss voting on nursing conditions?

The Swiss typically vote in referendums four times a year — more than any other nation.

However, if a piece of legislation that the parliament and the Federal Council want to enact is rejected by voters, the government has no choice but accept the defeat.

They have to adhere to the words an American politician famously uttered after he lost an election in the 1960s: “The people have spoken — the bastards”.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.