The political system of Switzerland is characterized by decentralization and direct democracy. The multilingual state is typically governed by a broad coalition that includes members from four of the largest political parties in the parliament. The 26 cantons of the Swiss Confederation have considerable decision-making power, and the public often weighs in on policy matters through referendums. Civil liberties are generally respected in the country, though laws and policies adopted in recent years have reflected a growing wariness of immigration and minority groups of foreign origin, which sometimes face societal discrimination.
- In September, voters rejected a proposal to end free movement with the European Union (EU), which the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) called for in 2017. Voters also approved the introduction of paternity leave, agreed to the acquisition of military aircraft, rejected a hunting-law revision, and rejected a tax-break proposal, while voters in the canton of Geneva approved a minimum wage.
- In December, the parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage and allow transgender and intersex people to update identity documents more easily. Opponents had 100 days to secure a referendum on the decision.
- The cabinet declared a COVID-19-related state of emergency in March, allowing it to issue decrees. The state of emergency expired in June and mass-gathering restrictions introduced in March were also eased that month, though mass-gathering restrictions were reintroduced in October as cases rose. Over 451,000 cases and 7,400 deaths were reported to the World Health Organization at year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Executive power is exercised by the seven-member Federal Council (cabinet), with each member elected by the bicameral Federal Assembly to four-year terms. The Federal Council represents a consensus-based coalition among most large parties in the Federal Assembly. The presidency is largely ceremonial and rotates annually among the Federal Council’s members. In December 2020, Guy Parmelin of the SVP was elected president for 2021 by the Federal Assembly.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution provides for a Federal Assembly with two directly elected chambers: the 46-member Council of States, in which each canton has two members and each half-canton has one, and the 200-member National Council, whose seats are apportioned among the cantons based on population. All lawmakers serve four-year terms. Switzerland’s electoral process is vibrant and pluralistic, garnering high levels of confidence from the public.
The October 2019 elections presented a minor shake-up in Swiss politics. In the National Council, the SVP remained the largest party but lost ground, taking 53 seats, down from 65 in the last parliament. The Social Democratic Party (SP) won 39 seats (losing 4), the Free Democratic Party of Switzerland (FDP) took 28 seats (losing 4), and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) took 25 seats (losing 2). The biggest winners of the election were the Green Party (GPS), which won 28 seats (gaining 17), and the Green Liberal Party (GLP), which won 16 seats (gaining 9).
In the Council of States, the CVP won 13 seats, the FDP secured 12, the SP took 9, the SVP took 6, and the GPS won 5. The GPS made gains, while the SP sustained losses.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Switzerland’s electoral process is robust and well implemented. Electoral laws are fair, and the Election Commission of Switzerland, which administers elections, is considered impartial.
Referendums scheduled for May 2020 were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but took place in late September. Voters rejected a proposal to end a free-movement agreement with the EU. Voters also supported the introduction of paternity leave, supported the acquisition of new military aircraft, rejected a hunting-law revision, and rejected a tax-break proposal.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties are free to form and operate, and a wide range of parties are active at the federal and regional levels. The political system, while stable, remains open to new groups. Party financing and lobbying are relatively opaque, however; the National Council did not support a party-finance transparency bill in September 2020 and rejected a lobbying bill in October.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
While most parties govern together by common agreement in the country’s consensus-based political system, they compete vigorously in elections and can gain or lose influence depending on their performance at the polls. Contentious policy issues are decided in referendums.
The Federal Council currently comprises two members each from the SVP, the SP, and the FDP, along with one CVP member. After the 2019 elections, the GPS, holds more seats than CVP and as many as the FDP, petitioned the parliament to change the Federal Council’s composition to accommodate their electoral success. The GPS lost a parliamentary vote over the issue, but will likely renew their bid should they repeat their strong performance in the next election.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
People’s political choices are generally free from domination by democratically unaccountable entities. However, Switzerland has been criticized for failing to address opacity in party financing. Civil society leaders contend that the campaign finance system allows wealthy interests to influence the platforms of the major political parties.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Restrictive citizenship laws and procedures tend to exclude many immigrants, as well as their children, from political participation. Noncitizens represent a quarter of the Swiss population, though more than a third of these are citizens of neighboring countries. Noncitizens cannot vote in federal elections but can vote in some cantonal polls.
Women participate robustly in Swiss politics, both as voters and candidates for office. The 2019 elections saw a record number of women elected to the National Council, where they now represent 42 percent of the body.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Switzerland’s freely elected officials determine and implement national and local policy through a decentralized system of government.
The 26 cantons have significant control over economic and social policy, with the federal government’s powers largely limited to foreign affairs and some economic matters. Extensively used referendums are mandatory for any federal constitutional amendments, the joining of international organizations, and major changes to federal laws.
In March 2020, the Federal Council declared a COVID-19-related state of emergency, allowing it to govern by decree. The state of emergency expired in June and the parliament codified pandemic-related decrees through the adoption of the Federal COVID-19 Act in September.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||4.004 4.004|
Safeguards against corruption are generally effective. The trial against Pierre Maudet, a former Geneva cantonal government head who had accepted benefits from the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in 2015, continued in 2020. Maudet held his seat as a Geneva state counsellor but resigned as cantonal business-promotion minister in October, after auditors noted high rates of absenteeism in his department.
A law to improve whistleblower protection was rejected in 2019 and again in March 2020 by the National Council. The reform effort came as a response to criticism by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which criticized Switzerland for failing to fully implement the recommendations of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
The government is generally transparent in its operations. In recent years, an increasing number of cantonal governments have passed transparency laws that make government data more accessible to citizens.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of the press is generally respected in practice. Switzerland has an open media environment, though the state-owned, editorially independent Swiss Broadcasting Corporation dominates the broadcast market. Consolidation of newspaper ownership in the hands of large media conglomerates has forced the closure of some smaller newspapers in recent years.
In November 2020, the Council of States’s telecommunications committee voted to support a revision to Article 93 of the constitution that would impose preexisting regulations on radio and television outlets to other media. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticized the proposal, warning it would impact the freedom of those outlets.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and the penal code prohibits discrimination against any religion. However, Muslims face legal and de facto discrimination. The construction of new minarets and mosques is prohibited as the result of a 2009 referendum.
In 2018, St. Gallen became the second canton to pass its own burqa ban, after Ticino in 2016. In June 2020, the National Council disapproved a proposal to ban burqas, though Swiss voters will consider a proposal to restrict their use in some circumstances in 2021.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is largely respected.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Individuals are generally able to express their personal views on political issues without fear of retribution, though the law punishes public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination as well as denial of crimes against humanity.
The Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) was granted wider surveillance powers in 2017, allowing it to monitor internet usage, bug private property, and tap phone lines of suspected terrorists. A 2018 law required mobile phone and internet service providers to retain user data, including information on which websites users visited, for six months. Both laws faced subsequent legal challenges. While nongovernmental organization (NGO) Digital Society’s legal challenge to FIS surveillance practices failed in an administrative court, the Swiss Federal Court upheld its appeal in December 2020, sending the case back for further review.
According to a 2019 University of Zurich survey, more than half of Swiss internet users practice self-censorship over fears of surveillance. The FIS was also found to have engaged in surveillance of left-wing groups and animal-rights activists during 2020.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed and is generally respected. Pandemic-related restrictions were imposed in March 2020 but were eased beginning in June. The government introduced new assembly restrictions in October as a second wave of COVID-19 cases was detected; restrictions were further tightened that month and in December.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
NGOs operate without undue restrictions.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Workers are generally free to form trade unions and other professional organizations. The right to engage in collective bargaining and strikes is respected. However, the International Labour Organization (ILO) added Switzerland to its blacklist of countries with weak job protection for unionized employees in 2019. While it is improper to dismiss an employee because of union membership or activity, the penalty for such behavior is seen as too low.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
While the judiciary is largely independent in practice, judges are affiliated with political parties and are selected based on a system of proportional party, linguistic, and regional representation in the Federal Assembly. The civil society group Justice Initiative has called for an independent, apolitical selection process for federal judges. In September 2020, the SVP sought the removal of federal judge Yves Donzallaz over his perceived disloyalty to the party line. Parliamentarians reelected Donzallaz that month, over the party’s objections.
Switzerland, which is not an EU member state, continues to negotiate its relationship with the bloc, though the topic remains contentious within the country. The EU and Switzerland agreed on an institutional framework in late 2018, though its finalization and implementation remained pending at the end of 2020.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||4.004 4.004|
Authorities generally observe legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention. The constitution’s due-process clause guarantees fair trial proceedings. In September 2020, however, parliamentarians approved legislation allowing police to preventively detain and surveil individuals, including children, suspected of terrorist activities.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||4.004 4.004|
Switzerland is free from war and other major threats to physical security, though violent incidents do occur. In November 2020, a woman attacked two people in a Lugano department store; authorities reported that the assailant had previously communicated with a fighter in Syria, while witnesses claimed she declared her support for the Islamic State (IS) militant group during the attack.
Occasional instances of excessive force by police have been documented, but such abuses are relatively rare. Conditions in prisons and detention centers generally meet international standards, and the Swiss government permits visits by independent observers.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or religion, anti-immigrant attitudes have grown in recent years. A 2016 immigration law included measures meant to curb mass migration from the EU and required employers give preference to Swiss citizens in hiring practices. In 2017, the SVP proposed a referendum on free movement with the EU; voters rejected the proposal to end that arrangement in September 2020.
Switzerland generally respects the rights of refugees. The capacity of centers for asylum seekers was reduced during 2020 due to COVID-19-related measures.
The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are legally protected, but minority groups—especially Romany communities and people of African and Central European descent—face societal discrimination. The Roma continue to seek official recognition as a minority in Switzerland. A 2018 report by the Federal Commission against Racism noted a strong increase in racial discrimination over the past decade.
While women generally enjoy equal rights, the gender pay gap and discrimination in the workplace persist. The rights of LGBT+ people are generally respected. In February 2020, voters upheld a 2018 amendment to existing antidiscrimination legislation that extended its provisions to include sexual orientation.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of movement is respected, and there are no undue limitations on the ability to change one’s place of residence, employment, or education. Movement within Switzerland and with other countries was limited by COVID-19 measures in March 2020, though border crossings gradually opened beginning in May. Remote-working recommendations were reintroduced in October due to a rise in cases.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
The rights to own property and operate private businesses remain unrestricted.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
Personal social freedoms are protected for most people. In a 2005 referendum, voters approved same-sex civil unions. Recognized since 2007, these unions granted many of the legal benefits of marriage. Limited adoption rights for same-sex civil partners were granted in 2018. Parliamentarians voted to approve same-sex marriage and allow transgender and intersex people to update identity documents more easily in December 2020. Opponents had 100 days to secure a referendum on the decision.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
The government complies with international standards for combating human trafficking and maintains support programs for survivors according to the 2020 edition of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. Labor regulations are generally enforced, but migrant workers are more vulnerable to exploitative labor practices and dangerous working conditions. While no national minimum wage exists, such rules do exist in two cantons. In Geneva, voters voiced their support for a minimum wage in September 2020. Ticino will introduce its own rules in 2021.
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Global Freedom Score96 100 free