For members


EXPLAINED: Who is in charge of running Switzerland?

Unlike other countries in Europe and elsewhere that are governed by presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, or dictators, Switzerland has a unique system of its own.

EXPLAINED: Who is in charge of running Switzerland?
Swiss flags. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

If you are confused about who exactly is running Switzerland, you are not alone.

Many people living abroad may find it hard to believe that this country has no one single leader — just as it doesn’t have one single language either. 

It’s true that when it comes to political leadership, Switzerland is an anomaly of sorts, though certainly not in a negative sense. In fact, it may well be the only industrialised nation in the world where all the political power lies at the grassroots level — with the citizens.

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

Swiss political system in a nutshell

Before we get to the main differences, let’s look at similarities between Switzerland’s government and those of many other countries.

One major similarity is that the government is divided between three branches: the legislature (parliament), which passes the laws; the executive (the Federal Council), which implements laws; and the judiciary (courts), which interprets them.

So far it sounds simple enough.

However, unlike other countries, where political decisions are made at the top and then trickle down to be followed by the population, in Switzerland it is the other way around.

Think of the Swiss system as an inverted pyramid: people, the main policy makers rather than mere recipients of decisions passed down from the upper echelons, are at the top.

This is how it works.

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

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

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.

In concrete terms, the parliament makes laws, but they won’t be enacted until the voters have their say. This is were referendums come in.

There are two types: a mandatory and optional referendum.

Referendums are a backbone of Switzerland’s political system.Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The first one is held when legislation and constitutional amendments approved by the parliament must be accepted (or rejected) by the voters. If the legislation is approved, it is implemented. If it is turned down, it doesn’t become law.

The second type allows any group or individual to contest an existing law, by gathering 50,000 signatures within 100 days. The petition must include names and addresses of Swiss citizens only.

Then there are popular, citizen-driven initiatives, which don’t challenge existing laws but are intended to create new ones.

An initiative must be launched by at least seven citizens and be backed by 100,000 signatures collected within 18 months in order to push it to a national vote.

For cantonal or communal initiatives, fewer signatures are required, based on the population of a given canton or municipality.

And citizens have plenty of opportunities to challenge legislation or create new one: referendums are held an average of four times a year.

READ MORE: How ordinary citizens can try to change the law in Switzerland

Here is an example.

In 2020, Swiss People’s Party (SVP) gathered enough signatures to bring an anti-immigration initiative to the ballot box.

It called on the government to curb the influx of immigrants from the EU by rescinding the Free Movement of Persons agreement between Bern and Brussels.

The Federal Council urged the voters to reject this proposal, arguing that this move would jeopardise Switzerland’s economic prosperity and its other treaties with the European Union — Switzerland’s main trading partner.

The voters sided with the government on this issue and rejected the initiative.

Had the proposal been accepted, a new law, restricting the access of EU workers to the Swiss labour market, would have to be implemented.

Does Switzerland have a president?

Yes, but there is a… but.

So that nobody gets too comfortable in this position (as is the case in some other countries), presidents in Switzerland serve only one year.

They are elected from among the seven cabinet members, that is, the Federal Council.

Each autumn MPs in in both chambers of the parliament (Council of States and National Council) elect the president for the following year. This is mostly ceremonial, since everyone knows ahead of time who is in line for the rotating presidency in a given year.

No surprises there.

Once elected, however, the president is not the head of state. Probably because seven heads are believed to be better than one, the entire Federal Council acts as the collective head of state. So it would not be wrong to say that Switzerland is a country with seven heads.

The seven members of Federal Council. Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr (right) is also on the photo.Photo by ALESSANDRO DELLA VALLE / AFP

So what does the president actually do?

According to the government site, “he or she chairs the Federal Council meetings and mediates in the case of disputes. In urgent situations the president can order precautionary measures. In the unlikely event that the Federal Council is unable to hold either an ordinary or an extraordinary meeting, the president may take a unilateral decision” — the latter being the only bit of ‘power’ the president can wield.

Other than that presidents have some special duties during their year of office, such as representing Switzerland on official visits abroad.

Traditionally, they also give a speech at New Year and on Swiss National Day on August 1st.

This notion may be difficult to grasp, but the entire Swiss system is based on the premise that all seven members of the Federal Council (who also act as ministers and heads of federal departments) are equal in status and nobody wields more power or has more clout than others.

The way the system is set up in Switzerland is that the only clout lies with the people, as they are the ones who ultimately make political decisions.

So now you know the unequivocal answer to the question of who is in charge in Switzerland: the citizens.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Unwritten rules: 10 things you shouldn’t do in Switzerland

In Switzerland, there are many unwritten rules that the Swiss follow in their daily lives. Knowing these 10 can help save you time, money, and stress, writes Swiss national Sandra Sparrowhawk.

Unwritten rules: 10 things you shouldn't do in Switzerland

Assume that every Swiss is a multi-lingual

While Switzerland has four official languages – German (Swiss German), French, Italian and Romansh – the Swiss are not required to be proficient in all four, and are far more likely to be conversational in one additional national language as well as English.

Take it from me, as a native of German-speaking Aargau, French was the mandatory ‘foreign’ language I was taught in secondary school and if you were to approach me in Italian, I’d have to say non parlo molto bene l’italiano.

And what little Italian I do know, I learned in Italy – not Ticino. Scusa.

READ MORE: Swiss Italian vs standard Italian: What are the key differences?

Underestimate nature

One of the first things my foreign friends told me upon landing in Switzerland was that they cannot wait to go hiking in the Swiss Alps.

But while Switzerland is a perfect place to go hiking with its thousands of marked trails, every year, hundreds of people get into accidents while trekking, and some even die.

So, my advice to you if you do want to explore Swiss nature is to stick to hiking trails at all times, make sure you wear appropriate clothing (specifically shoes), pack enough water, and download the Meteo Swiss App to stay informed on severe weather forecasts and other natural hazards.

READ MORE: How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

Shop on a Saturday

For many Swiss people, Saturday is hailed as the perfect weekday to stock up on all your food supplies to avoid running out of food on a Sunday, despite the store Avec being a perfectly reasonable (and open) plan B.

But while shopping on Saturdays spares you from having to hit the shelves right after work, Swiss food stores are notoriously packed with shoppers on the weekend – one of the few times a week you should really prioritise winding down.

In general, when out shopping in Switzerland, be sure to greet shopkeepers when entering a store and paying for goods. However, don’t expect fellow shoppers to queue up. The Swiss, while polite, do not have a queuing culture and will absolutely step in front of you if you let them.

Take a long time to order at the bakery

If you happen to be a morning person who enjoys a yummy pastry in the morning, remember that hitting the bakery in Switzerland will require you to make up your mind about your order fast – and ideally before you get there.

Unlike in some European countries, the Swiss like to get on with their day’s work and prolonged chats paired with indecisiveness are generally not encouraged. That said, always feel free to ask for recommendations.

Sit in a (train) seat without asking

You may look at the empty seat before you and ask: “But there’s no one sat here?”

And yet, even if a passenger is occupying a four-seater on a train all by themselves, in Switzerland, it is common courtesy to ask if the seemingly empty seat(s) is still available before you get comfortable – and not just because their friend(s) may be using the toilet.

If you are invited to take a seat, remember to keep quiet on Swiss trains so as not to disturb other travellers.

Attend a dinner without bringing a small gift

If you have been invited to a party or home-cooked dinner by a friend, colleague, or acquaintance, the etiquette is to bring a small gift as a thank you. In Switzerland, most people choose to bring a bottle of wine or a seasonal bouquet of flowers. In a business setting, it is not necessary to bring or exchange a gift.

And while on the topic of dinner, never ring a Swiss person at dinnertime as we consider that time sacred, especially in today’s busy world. You’re welcome.

READ MORE: The dos and don’ts of Swiss social etiquette

Spend a small fortune on water

Switzerland is repeatedly recognised as a country with the best quality tap water in the world, according to the United Nations. In fact, eighty percent of the water comes from natural springs and groundwater, the rest is taken from the lakes.

The same (usually) goes for fountain water.

Except for the winter months when the water is prone to freezing, drinking fountains can be found practically everywhere in Switzerland.

The quality of water in the fountains is inspected by each municipality to ensure that it is clean and safe to drink.

If this is not the case, a label with the note “no drinking water” must be visibly attached.

In the summer, I would recommend carrying a reusable drinking bottle wherever you go. This will not only keep you hydrated, but also save you money.

Hold a feast on a Sunday

While you are perfectly allowed to activate your weekend mode on Saturdays (though extreme noise is never welcome, because this is Switzerland), come Sunday the Swiss expect everyone – with the exception of newborns – to switch to silent-mode for the entire day. But what exactly counts as a disturbance of one’s peace? Luckily, that’s a bit of a grey zone and largely relies on a person’s common sense to decide just what is an appropriate level of noise.

On a wider scale, unwanted noise can include anything from playing instruments, slamming doors during arguments, using a drill for home improvements, or emulating Heidi Klum in some fancy high heels.

Small tip: If you’re set on hosting a party on a Sunday, notify your neighbours first, and good luck – you’ll need it.

Don’t push in

While the Swiss may not have a queuing culture when waiting on a train, they do consider it good form to pay attention to your surroundings and give way to whomever arrived first – be it when entering a lift or when trying to snag the last available parking space.

Expect public transport to wait for you

The Swiss public transport system is known for its reliable punctuality and the latter is actually a big part of local culture.

With that being said, if you happen to arrive at the platform ‘just a tad late’ for your train and make a run for it hoping the train operator will spot you and show you mercy, know that in Switzerland this will not be the case.

Since Switzerland’s rail network is very busy, even a small delay in a waiting train can cause a chain reaction and lead to many more delays.

The same (usually) goes for buses, though they are known to occasionally turn a blind eye if traffic and schedules allow.