Swiss politics is played out at three levels, the Confederation, the cantons and the communes. Each has the autonomy to decide on certain matters, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity: a decision is made at a higher level only when it is beyond the powers of the lower level to do so.

The cantonal coats of arms in the Federal Palace
The cantonal coats of arms in the Federal Palace. (Keystone/Edi Engeler)


Switzerland is a federalist state. This means that state powers are divided between the Confederation, the cantons and the communes. The cantons and communes have extensive powers and have their own sources of income.
This is an example of the application of the principle of subsidiarity.

Federalism makes it possible to enjoy diversity within a single entity. For Switzerland, with its four national languages and its highly diverse geographical landscapes, federalism makes an important contribution to social cohesion.

Principle of subsidiarity

Under the principle of subsidiarity, nothing that can be done at a lower political level should be done at a higher political level. If, for example, a commune is unable to deal with a certain task, the next higher political level, i.e. the canton, has a duty to provide support.

The Confederation – powers conferred by the Constitution

The Confederation is the Swiss term for the state. The Confederation is responsible wherever it is empowered by the Federal Constitution - for example:

  • for foreign and security policy
  • for customs and monetary matters
  • for legislation that applies nationally
  • for defence

Tasks that are not expressly designated as federal matters are the responsibility of the cantons.

The cantons have a high degree of autonomy

At the next lower political level are the cantons, the 'states' that make up Switzerland.

Under the Federal Constitution, all the cantons have equal status and rights, and when compared with similar political systems in other countries, they have an extensive range of powers. Health, education and culture are examples of policy areas in which they have a large degree of autonomy.

Each canton has its own constitution, parliament, government and courts. Cantonal parliaments range in size from 50 to 180 members, all elected by the People, in most cantons under a system of proportional representation.

The cantonal governments are also elected by the People, in most cases under a first-past-the-post system. People's assemblies (Landsgemeinden), an ancient form of direct democracy, are still convened in the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden.

The communes – largely autonomous

The smallest political entity in Switzerland is the commune. Currently there are around 2300 communes. Around a fifth of communes, normally those that are cities or larger towns, have their own parliaments. Four fifths, on the other hand, reach their decisions in the direct-democratic forum of the communal assembly, in which all residents who are entitled to vote can participate. In these communes, residents do not elect representatives to make decisions for them, but make the decisions themselves, and elect an executive body to carry them out.

In addition to the tasks assigned to the communes by the Confederation and their respective cantons (e.g. maintaining a register of residents or organising a civil defence unit), the communes have their own responsibilities, for example:

  • schools and welfare provision
  • energy supplies
  • roads
  • local planning
  • local taxation

Last modification 21.09.2015

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