Swiss Federalism

  • Concept and character

    The character of Swiss Federalism is revealed not only in the constitutional framework of state organisation, but in the history of the confederation and the real-life experiences between the different levels of the state and its citizens.

    «Federalism in this country is often associated with the <Kantönligeist> or provincialism (literally <little canton mentality>). Politicians and the media are fond of criticising regulations governing issues like dangerous dogs, passive smoking, trading standards or schools, portraying federalism as a legal straightjacket that prevents or at least impedes efficiency and progress. Today's division of authority between the Confederation and the cantons gives rise to a diverse array of regulations that can sometimes exacerbate existing problems. However, to equate federalism with cantonal sovereignty in certain areas and the resulting legal fragmentation is to oversimplify the matter. Federalism has a much wider meaning. It is, in fact, an organising principle according to which a political community or alliance is divided into constituent political units, which are afforded (or retain) substantial autonomy and contribute to shaping the will of the higher political authority. This organising principle finds its main expression as a form of government in federally organised nation states, but it can also serve as a useful framework for international and supranational organisations. Federalism, moreover, is a state of mind, a culture shared by citizens and institutions.

    In Switzerland, the federal system dates back to the Federal Constitution of 1848, but the foundations for the territorial structure were largely established by the Old Swiss Confederacy and later by Napoleon's Act of Mediation (1803). Even though the Federal Constitution mentions neither federalism nor a federal state, it establishes a political maxim and an underlying structural principle based to a certain extent on the constitutional set-up. The substance of this basis arises from the constitutional provisions as a whole, which dictate government structure and division, and from the legal system based on these provisions. Alongside the rule of law, democracy and the social state, federalism represents a key pillar of the Swiss system of government.» (From: Bernhard Waldmann, Föderalismus unter Druck, Eine Skizze von Problemfeldern und Herausforderungen für den Föderalismus in der Schweiz, in: Gredig et al. (eds.), Peters Dreiblatt, Special Edition for Peter Hänni on his 60th Birthday, Bern 2010, page 3 ff.).

    «Nowadays the concepts of federalism and the federal state are inextricably linked. A federal structure, however, is too easily assumed as a given, since it is difficult to imagine any alternative for Switzerland. But this has not always been the case. The Swiss federal state, as it exists today with all its peculiarities, is not a theoretical system sculpted by experts in constitutional law. Instead it is the product of two hundred years of development that have seen a vacillation between federal and centralised systems and conflicts between federalists and centralists, conservatives and liberals, and Catholics and Protestants. The Swiss Confederation in its unique configuration is the result of these historical conflicts. To understand the role of the cantons within the federal state, we therefore must first understand their origins. The building blocks of the present-day Swiss Confederation are not various theories of statehood but rather an organic evolution from small independent states to a functioning and modern single state.» (From: Ursula Abderhalden, Die Geschichte des schweizerischen Bundesstaates, in: Peter Hänni (ed.), Schweizerischer Föderalismus und europäische Integration, Zurich 2000, p. 5).

    Swiss Federalism is marked by the following characteristics in particular (referring to Belser/Waldmann/Wiederkehr, loc. cit., Kap. 6, Rz. 11):

    • three-level state structure; the third, communal level only exists in accordance with cantonal (constitutional) law (3rd title of the constitution, art. 50 Federal Constitution (FC)) in particular;
    • The cantons are considered as states (Art. 1, 3 und 51 FC);
    • The cantons are largely autonomous (autonomy concerning the tasks, organisation, finances, cooperation and implementation) (cf. art. 46 para. 3, 47, 48 para. 1 FC);
    • The Confederation guarantees the existence and the territory of each individual canton, as well as their constitutional order (art. 1 and 52 f. FC);
    • The division of tasks between the Confederation and the cantons is made according to the principle that new powers of the Confederation must be provided for by the constitution (art. 42 FC) and the subsidiary general competence of the cantons (art. 3 FC);
    • Implementation (execution) of federals tasks by the cantons, unless the Federal Constitution or the federal law provides otherwise (art. 46 FC);
    • Participation of the cantons in the process of political decision-making of the Confederation (art. 45 FC), in particular through the sharing of constitutional power (art. 1, 140 para. 1 lit. a in conj. with art. 142 para. 1 FC) as well as their participation in the legislative process (art. 45, 141, 147, 150 and 160 FC) and in foreign policy decisions (art. 55 FC);
    • Equality of treatment of the cantons (with some few isolated exceptions) and equalisation of financial resources and burdens (art. 135 FC);
    • Cooperation in the spirit of solidarity and mutual consideration between the Confederation and the cantons, and the cantons amongst themselves respectively (art. 44 FC: «federal duty of loyalty») as well as increased cooperation among the cantons when fulfilling their tasks (art. 48 FC)
  • Legal bases

    Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation of 18 April 1999
    (RS 101)

    Federal Act of 22 December 1999 on the Participation of the Cantons in Federal Foreign Policy (RS 138.1)

    Federal Act on the equalisation of financial resources and burdens of 3 October 2003
    (RS 613.2)

    Framework agreement for the intercantonal cooperation with equalisation of burdens of 24 June 2005
    (Framework agreement) 


  • Materials and reports on federalism

    Federal Council Dispatch of  20 November 1996 on a new Federal Constitution
     FF 1997 I 1

    Federal Council Dispatch of 14 November 2001 on Redistributing Fiscal Equalisation and Responsibilities between the Confederation and the Cantons
     FF 2002 2291

    Federal Council Report of 15 June 2007on the Effects of Various European Political Instruments on Federalism in Switzerland («Federalism Report»)
     FF 2007 5907 ss 

    Ch Foundation for Federal Cooperation
    Monitoring  Report Federalism 2017-2021 of 18 August 2022

    Ch Foundation for Federal Cooperation
    Monitoring Report Federalism 2014–2016 of 30 June 2017

    Ch Foundation for Federal Cooperation
    Monitoring Report Federalism 2011–2013 of 20 June 2014

  • Literature on Swiss federalism

    The Institute regularly publishes a bibliography on Swiss federalism.

    Since 2005 it has also compiled reports for the ch Foundation for Federal Cooperation on the findings and trends in Swiss federalism research.

  • Mapping Federalism

    ESEHA, an acronym in French for «State, Society, Economy, History, Administration» is an association founded in 2013 by a group of researchers and public administration specialists.

    The association aims at the scientific analysis of the institutional diversity in Switzerland and internationally, especially in the light of federalism.

    In order to achieve its goals, the association maintains the database (formerly on Swiss cantons and communes, the interactive state atlas of Switzerland, and the bilingual, German-French portal

    interaktiver StaatsAtlas (AsTAT)


  • Cantonal popular votes and elections

    The Institute of Federalism (IFF) informs on a regular basis about upcoming cantonal votations, and publishes a newsletter for this purpose.

  • Federal popular votes and elections

    The website of the federal authorities give access to pending popular initiatives and referenda, as well as the upcoming popular votes and elections to the national council.

    Pending popular initiatives


    Popular votes

    Election to the national council