Features of the Swiss Federation

This article throws light upon the nine federal features of the Swiss federation. Some of the federal features are: 

1. Cantons as Non-Sovereign Units 

2. A Federation and not a Confederation 

3. Written Constitution 

4. Division of Powers 

5. Rigid Constitution 

6. Equality of all Cantons 

7. Bicameral Federal Parliament in which the Upper House Represents the Cantons and Others.

1. Cantons as Non-Sovereign Units:

Switzerland is a sovereign state with 20 full Cantons and 6 half Cantons. These are counted as 23 Cantons because 6 half Cantons together constitute 3 full Cantons. These Cantons are non-sovereign units which together form the Swiss Federation.

The process of their unification started in 1291 with the Everlasting Alliance between three Cantons- Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (Obwalden). By 1513, the alliance came to have 13 Cantons.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia recognized the alliance as a confederation. The establishment of a united Helvetic Republic in 1798 after the French conquest of Switzerland came as a blessing in disguise in so far as it gave strength to the forces of integration.

The fall of the Helvetic Republic was followed by the Federal Pact which declared:

“The Cantons were uniting for their common safety and the preservation of their liberty and independence against all foreign aggression as well as to preserve internal peace and order.”

The Congress of Vienna gave recognition to the Swiss confederation. Thereafter, six more Cantons joined the Confederation, in 1815, when the 3 French speaking Cantons joined it, Switzerland came to be a confederation of 22 Cantons.

2. A Federation and not a Confederation:

During 1815-48, Switzerland experienced a civil war between the Radicals supporting complete unity into a federation and the Federalists supporting increased autonomy of rights and freedom for the Cantons. The victory of the Radicals in this war, which came to be known as the Sonderbund War, set the stage for the transformation of Switzerland into a federation of 22 Cantons.

This was accomplished by the Constitution of 1848. In 1874, a total revision of the 1848-Constitution was made in order to further strengthen the central government and to make Switzerland a true federation. Later on, one more Full Canton was created as a part of the Swiss confederation.

This made Switzerland a federation of 23 Cantons. However, during 1874-1999 due to the legacy of his history, Switzerland continued to be officially described as a confederation. The new Constitution (2000) has however-described Switzerland as a federation. Art. 1 of the Constitution bears the title Swiss Federation and contains a list of the Swiss Cantons.

3. Written Constitution:

Like a true federation, Switzerland has a written constitution by which the division of powers has been affected between the Swiss federal government and the 23 Cantonal governments. The Constitution of Switzerland is the supreme law of the land.

No Cantonal constitution can in any way contain anything against the Swiss Constitution. It contains elaborate provision regarding the nature of Swiss Federation and the Federal— Cantonal relations.

 4. Division of Powers:

The Swiss Constitution creates a division of powers between the Federation and the Cantons in a truly federal way. It specifies the powers of the federation and the joint powers of the federation and the Cantons. It vests the residuary powers with the Cantons. The Cantons enjoy autonomy in respect of the legislation and administration of all those subjects which have not been given to the federation.

The federation has been given powers in respect of subjects of national and common interest and importance. The federal list includes defence, foreign affairs, railways, P and T, banking and commerce, currency, nationalization and others.

The new Constitution now describes the powers of the Swiss Federation in a very detailed manner (Article 54 to 135). The Cantons have the residuary subjects, and have retained the powers which have not given to the federation.

The Cantonal governments look after law and order, elections, construction of public works and highways, local government, public education and other such subjects.

Both the Federation and the Cantons have been given the power to legislate on some concurrent subjects. The Concurrent List includes industrial conditions, insurance, regulation of the press and education, highways and some others. However, in case of a conflict between a federal law and the law of any Canton on a concurrent subject, the former prevails over the latter.

Regarding the division of powers, the Swiss Constitution clearly upholds the position that the Cantons are sovereign (Article 3) in so far as their sovereignty is not limited by the Federal constitution and as such, they exercise all rights which have not been transferred to- the federal government.

5. Rigid Constitution:

The Swiss Constitution, like a truly federal constitution, is a rigid constitution. No amendment can be made in the constitution without popular approval. The proposal can be initiated either by the Federal Parliament or by 1, 00,000 of Swiss voters.

No amendment gets incorporated in the Swiss Constitution without the approval of the majority of Swiss Voters and without the consent of the majority of the Cantons.

6. Equality of all Cantons:

Like the US Federation, the Swiss federation also accepts the sovereign equality of all the Cantons whether big or small. Each full Canton sends two representatives and each Half-Canton one representative to the upper house of the Swiss Federal Parliament—the Senate.

The Cantons enjoy the right to determine the method of election and the tenures of their respective Senators. The principle of the equality of all Cantons in the Senate symbolizes the sovereign equality of all Cantons. The Canton of Berne has a population 30 times larger than the Canton of Uri, yet both have equal seats (two) in the Senate.

7. Bicameral Federal Parliament in which the Upper House Represents the Cantons:

Another feature of a federation, a bicameral federal legislature whose upper House represents the units of the federation on the basis of equal representation, is also present in Switzerland. Swiss Federal Parliament is a bicameral body whose upper house—the Senate, represents the Cantons.

Each full Canton sends two and each half Canton sends one representative to it. This House enjoys co-equal powers with the lower house i.e. the House of Representatives which represents the Swiss people.

8. A Separate Constitution for Each Canton:

Like other true federations, the Swiss federation also recognizes the right of each Canton to have a separate constitution of its own.

There have been specified only three conditions in the respect:

(i) Every Cantonal constitution has to be a republican (democratic) constitution;

(ii) It can in no way be opposed to or violative of the Federal Constitution;

(iii) It must provide for amendment by a popular vote.

The Swiss Cantons have been guaranteed autonomy of internal administration.

9. Double Citizenship:

The Swiss Constitution grants a uniform citizenship of Switzerland to all the people. In addition to it, the people have the citizenship of their respective Cantons. In other words, the Swiss Constitution, like the American Constitution, accepts the principle of Double Citizenship.

All these features clearly reveal the true federal nature of the Swiss political system. In fact, the Swiss society is a pluralist society and the Swiss Federalism reflects this facts. It is a society with four main linguistic groups – German, French, Italian and Romansh, and the Swiss people have voluntarily been living as one united nation under a federal system.

Unity in diversity, individuality with union for strength, and regional (Cantonal) autonomy with national unity has been together the ideological foundations of the Swiss Federation. Even the growth in the powers of the federal government and a tendency towards centralisation stands fully accepted by the Cantons as a national necessity.

Federal Cantonal relations in Switzerland show a marked maturity and harmony, and this fact provides necessary tonic for the health of the Swiss Nation.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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