Corina Casanova: Typically Swiss – Federalism, direct democracy and multilingualism

Born from an alliance between the three original cantons Uri, Schwyz and Unter­walden, Switzerland took more than seven centuries to become to­­day’s confederation of 26 cantons. Besides the federation and the cantons, the 2,715 municipalities represent a third political plane. On each of those three planes, the Swiss people possess extensive co-determination rights.

Approximately 40 per cent of referenda held worldwide between 1900 and 2000 took place in Swit­zerland. An­­other of Switzerland’s pe­­culiarities is its multilin­­gualism. Ap­­proximately 64 per cent of the Swiss population speaks German, 20 per cent French, six per cent Italian and 0.5 per cent Romansh. Of course, other languages are spoken, but they are not considered national languages.
Such linguistic and cultural diversity calls for a federally organized com­­mu­­nity as it is represented by the Swiss Confed­er­ation.


Switzerland has a federalist structure. By constitution, the federation has authority in such areas as foreign and security policy, customs and finance, national legislation and de­­fence. Re­­sponsibilities that are not expressly fe­­­d­eral fall into the competency of the cantons. Roughly, those are the areas of public health, education and culture. Each canton has its own con­­sti­­tution, parliament, government and courts. The municipalities carry the re­­sponsibilities handed down to them by the federation or the canton, such as the population register or civil de­­fence.

There is hardly another country where the population has such extensive co-determination rights as in Swit­zer­­land. On the federal plane, the Swiss have the following political rights: They elect members of parliament, which consists of two houses with equal rights: the National Council and the Council of States. The Na­­tio­nal Coun­­cil consists of 200 members. They are elect­ed depending on the population of each of the 26 cantons, which re­­pre­­sent the constituencies. That pro­­ce­dure assures a pro­­portional repre­sen­tation of the entire Swiss population in the National Council. In contrast, the Coun­cil of States consists of two representatives per canton, elected by the people. Each canton being re­­p­resented equally in this house, re­­gardless of its population, even the smaller cantons are given a voice on the federal level.


The government (Federal Council) and highest court of the country (Federal Court) are elected by the parliament. Furthermore, voters can decide on spe­­cific issues by way of referendum or initiative approximately four times per year. All amendments of the constitu­tion as well as membership to certain in­­ter­na­tional organizations are submitted to referendum. In such ca­­ses, a na­­tional election is held.

Such proposals must be accepted by a double ma­­­jority: the majority of the coun­­try’s voters (popular majority) on the one hand and the majority of the cantons on the other hand. Re­­vised or new laws and similar decisions by the parliament as well as certain international treaties are only sub­­mitted to an optional vote (that is if requested by a minimum of 50,000 vo­­­ters). Such proposals are accepted by a simple popular majority. Finally, a con­­stitutional amendment can also be put to a national vote by way of a pop­ular initiative. Such a proposal requires a min­imum of 100,000 voters. The po­pu­­la­tion possesses similar co-determination rights on the cantonal and mu­­ni­cipal levels.


The “Landsgemeinde” of the Glarus and Ap­­pen­zell-In­­nerr­ho­den cantons have exten­sive co-determination rights. The “Landsgemeinde” con­­sists of the voters. Any voter can submit a proposal, and the votes are public.
Switzerland has four “national languages:” German, French, Italian and Romansh. This quadrilingualism as­­sures a cultural and formal equality between the four linguistic communities. It is not only a declaration of intent, but also a commit­­ment to pre­­serving those four languages; as such, it is a fundamental trait of the Swiss Confederation.

Consequently, Swiss language policy pursues the goals of strengthening quadrilingualism, consolidating in­­ner cohesion, promoting multilingualism and conserving the two smaller It­a­l­ian and Romansh language groups, in particular.

Communication between the federation and the population takes place in one of the three “official languag­es” (German, French and Italian) and in Romansh for people of that language. For the purpose of official com­munications, this obligates feder­al authorities to handle petitions or requests in the same language that they were submitted. Federal publications, including decrees, are to be made in German, French and Italian.

Federal decrees are published in Ro­­mansh only if they are of special signi­ficance. On the internet and on letter­­heads, meanwhile, the fe­dera­tion always presents it­­self in all four national languages. Finally, the constitution prescribes that the lin­­guis­­tic areas be represented appropri­ately in government elec­­tions. Sim­ilar guide­lines exist for the federal court and the staff of the federal administration.


What do federalism, direct democracy and multilingualism represent for Switzerland as an economic location? I am convinced that those principles render the location of Switzerland more attractive. Federalism, for ex­­ample, leads to decentralized structures, po­­l­itics for the people and, thus, also easy access to the authorities. The democratic co-determination rights give citizens the opportunity to parti­c­ipate in decisions on key issues, which promotes a more efficient con­­trol of politics, particularly public fi­­nances. The interests of affected can­­tons, as­­sociations and citizens are quickly re­­cognized and ad­­dressed. The multilingualism al­­lows the various linguistic communities to preserve their iden­­tities. In combination with the early in­­clusion of affected entities and the precautions in favour of regional mi­­nor­ities, it leads to political stability in Swit­­zerland, which is equally be­­n­eficial to both its economy and its population.

C.-Casanova-KopieCorina Casanova studied and obtained a doc­­torate in law and became a licensed law­­yer in 1984. She then practised law and was active as a delegate of the Inter­na­tio­nal Committee of the Red Cross. La­­ter, she worked for the federal parlia­­men­­­tary services and the confederate de­­part­ment of foreign affairs. In 2005, she became Vice-Chancellor, and since 2008, she has been Chancellor of the Con­fe­de­­ration.