History of the Federal Presidency

The Swiss Federal Presidency has a rich and varied history. During the first difficult decades of the federal state, the office was awarded to federal councillors with particularly strong leadership skills, but in the 1890s the system of rotation was introduced.

Monument of the first President of the Swiss Confederation Jonas Furrer (1805-1861) in Winterthur
Monument of the first President of the Swiss Confederation Jonas Furrer (1805-1861) in Winterthur (KEYSTONE/Gaetan Bally)

No concentration of power

The members of the cantonal governments who drew up the Swiss Constitution were pragmatic thinkers and prepared to make compromises, according to the Swiss Historical Dictionary. Certainly they did not waste any time in getting down to work: they made the most of the atmosphere of political change in spring 1848 and within a few weeks drew up the federal state’s very first constitution. They wanted to avoid the concentration of too much power in too few hands, and certainly did not want just one person to hold too many executive powers. The federal presidency was shaped accordingly and the term of office limited to one year.

Two record holders

The first president of the Swiss Confederation in 1848 and 1849 was Jonas Furrer, a liberal from Zurich. During the rest of the 19th century it was mainly the particularly influential federal councillors who were elected president. Record holders Karl Schenk (BE) and Emil Welti (AG) each held the office six times. Both were members of the federal government for a very long time: Welti 24 years, and Schenk 31, making him the longest-standing federal councillor in history.

System of rotation since the 1890s

The current system of rotation, whereby the longest-standing member of the government becomes vice president of the Federal Council and then a year later president of the Swiss Confederation, did not become established until the 1890s. Prior to this the Federal Assembly elected the most admired federal councillors as president. Those who were less popular with the members of parliament had, in some cases, to wait a long time, for example Willhelm Matthias Naeff from St Gallen, who, despite sitting on the Federal Council for 27 years, was president only in 1853. Only once did an elected president not take up office: Victor Ruffy from the canton of Vaud, who was elected President of the Swiss Confederation for 1870, died on 29 December 1869. A sitting president has never resigned from office, although Wilhelm Hertenstein from the canton of Zurich died in office in 1888.

Also foreign minister

In the first ten years following the foundation of the federal state, it was usual for the president to head the Political Department, forerunner to the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1888 the two offices were separated. From 1897 to 1920 the two offices were again held by one person.

Eight female presidents

There have been eight female presidents to date. Ruth Dreifuss was the first woman to be elected president in 1999. She was followed by Micheline Calmy-Rey (2007 and 2011), Doris Leuthard (2010 and 2017), Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (2012) and Simonetta Sommaruga (2015 and 2020).

Last modification 11.12.2020

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