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Swiss Federalism

Switzerland is a federal state. This means that state powers are divided between the Confederation, the cantons and the communes. Each entity has its own tasks.

Federalism, which was introduced in Switzerland in 1848, 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 and important contribution to social cohesion.

The Federal Constitution lays down the powers of the Confederation and the cantons. The cantons, in turn, define the powers of their communes.

Principle of subsidiarity

Powers are allocated to the Confederation, the cantons and the communes in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.

The Confederation only undertakes tasks that the cantons are unable to perform or which require uniform regulation by the Confederation.

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

Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation

The powers of the Confederation

The Confederation is responsible wherever it is given authority by the Federal Constitution, for example in the following policy areas:

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

Tasks that are not expressly allocated to the Confederation by the Federal Constitution are the responsibility of the cantons. In some areas, such as higher education, responsibilities are shared.

The room to manoeuvre of the cantons

The room to manoeuvre of the cantons
Under the Federal Constitution, all the cantons have equal status and rights, namely in the following policy areas:

• budget
• political system
• taxation (since they can levy taxes)

Each canton has its own constitution, acts, parliament, government and courts.
The cantonal governments are also elected by the people, in most cases under a first-past-the-post system. People’s assemblies (Landsgemeinde) are still held in the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden.

Tasks and operation of the cantons

The role of the communes

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 for themselves, and elect a communal executive to carry them out.

In addition to the tasks assigned to the communes by the Confederation and their respective cantons (e.g. managing 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

Addresses of administrative authorities at federal, cantonal and communal levels

Addresses of administrative authorities

Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation