The political system of Switzerland is characterized by decentralization and direct democracy. The multilingual state is typically governed by a broad coalition including members from four of the largest parliamentary parties. 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, which face societal and systemic discrimination.
- In March, Swiss voters approved a ban on the use of full face coverings, including the burqa, in public. The federal government had argued against the initiative, calling for the issue to be addressed locally.
- In May, the Swiss government ended negotiations on a framework agreement with the European Union (EU), which would have superseded over 120 existing bilateral agreements between Bern and the bloc.
- In September, voters supported a 2020 law guaranteeing same-sex marriage and adoption rights.
|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, 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. Guy Parmelin of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) served in 2021. Ignazio Cassis of the Free Democratic Party of Switzerland (FDP) was selected to succeed Parmelin in December and will assume the post in 2022.
|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 54 seats, down from 65 in the last parliament. The Social Democratic Party (SP) won 39 seats (losing 4), the 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). No other party won more than 10 seats.
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|
Swiss elections are free and fair, and the Election Commission, which administers them, is considered impartial.
Swiss voters took part in several referendums in 2021. In March, voters narrowly supported an SVP-backed law banning the wearing of full face coverings, including burqas, in public. The federal government had opposed the proposal, calling for the issue to be addressed locally. That same month, voters rejected a bill to introduce a digital identity system but approved a free trade agreement with Indonesia.
In June, voters approved the 2020 COVID-19 Act, which contained pandemic-related measures. They also supported a federal antiterrorism act while rejecting proposals to lower carbon dioxide emissions, ban synthetic pesticides, and address potable water and healthy food concerns.
In September, voters supported a 2020 bill that legalized marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples. A proposal to tax capital gains was defeated.
In November, voters approved proposal to expand canton-level health-care provisions and an extension of COVID-19 measures, including financial support for companies. An initiative to determine federal judges via a lottery system was rejected.
|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. In January 2021, the CVP and the Conservative Democratic Party, which held three lower-house seats, merged to form the Center Party.
Party financing and lobbying are relatively opaque. The National Council did not support a party-finance transparency bill and rejected a lobbying bill in 2020.
|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 seven-seat Federal Council currently comprises two members each from the FDP, the SP, and the SVP, along with one Center Party member. After the 2019 elections, the GPS, which now holds more seats than the 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. A GPS seat was effectively denied based on an interpretation of the “magic formula,” whereby Federal Council seats are distributed according to the approximate strength of the four largest parties in the parliament.
|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.
|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 immigrants from political participation. Noncitizens represent a quarter of the Swiss population yet cannot vote in federal elections.
The 2019 elections saw a record number of women elected to the National Council. Women represent 42.5 percent of the body but made up 50.2 percent of the Swiss population as of 2020.
People with disabilities and living under full guardianship have the automatic right to vote on local and cantonal matters in Geneva and can request the right to vote in Ticino and Vaud. However, Switzerland does not fully comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which it ratified in 2014. An initiative to expand political rights for people living with disabilities launched in September 2021; supporters intend to collect signatures in 2022.
The rights of LGBT+ people are generally respected.
|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 governance system. 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.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||4.004 4.004|
Safeguards against corruption are generally effective. Pierre Maudet, a former Geneva cantonal government head who had accepted benefits from Abu Dhabi’s crown prince in 2015, was convicted of receiving an undue financial advantage in February 2021 and received a suspended sentence. In March, Maudet lost a canton-level election in Geneva.
A law to improve whistleblower protection was rejected in 2019 and again in 2020 by the National Council. The failed reform effort came in response to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) criticizing Switzerland for failing to fully implement its Anti-Bribery Convention recommendations.
|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 making government data more accessible.
In its June 2021 report, the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption reported that Swiss authorities did not fully adopt its previous recommendations regarding legislators’ financial declarations and liabilities.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of the press is generally respected. Switzerland has an open media environment, though the state-owned, editorially independent Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG/SSR) dominates the market. Consolidation of newspaper ownership in the hands of large conglomerates has forced the closure of some smaller newspapers in recent years.
In 2020, the telecommunications committee of the Council of States 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 constitutionally guaranteed and the penal code prohibits discrimination against any religion. However, Muslims face legal and practical 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 2020, the National Council disapproved a proposal to ban burqas. In March 2021, however, Swiss voters approved a proposal to restrict their public use nationwide.
|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 and internet service providers to retain user data, including information on which websites users visited, for six months. Both laws faced subsequent legal challenges, although a court decision was still pending at the end of 2021.
In April 2021, the SRG/SSR reported that the FIS regularly delayed responses to requests for information from individuals; nongovernmental organization (NGO) grundrechte.ch warned that the FIS’s slow response may discourage political discussion or activity.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed and is generally respected, though pandemic-related measures have sometimes affected assemblies. Swiss authorities lifted some restrictions on gatherings in March 2021 but tightened restrictions by December, as COVID-19 cases rose.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
NGOs generally operate without undue restrictions, though some groups face surveillance. In July 2021, Statewatch reported that the FIS monitored Solidarity Without Borders, which advocates for the interests of migrants and asylum seekers, along with other NGOs.
|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 list 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 selected based on a system of proportional party, linguistic, and regional representation in the Federal Assembly. Two Federal Supreme Court members were selected under this system in June 2021. Green and SP judges are underrepresented within the court.
Campaigners advocating for judges to be selected by a lottery collected the needed signatures for their proposal in 2019. The Federal Council rejected the proposal in 2020, and Swiss voters rejected it in November 2021.
|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 2020, however, parliamentarians approved legislation allowing police to preventively detain and surveil individuals suspected of terrorist activities. Swiss voters approved the legislation in June 2021. Amnesty International heavily criticized the law after it received voters’ support, warning it could be employed against children as young as 12 years old and is vague in its definition of terrorism.
|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. Occasional instances of excessive force by police have been documented. 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 2020, voters rejected an SVP proposal to end the free movement agreement with the EU.
The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are legally protected, but minority groups—especially Roma, Sinti, and people of African descent—face societal discrimination. The Federal Commission against Racism counted 572 cases of racial discrimination in Switzerland in 2020.
Women generally enjoy equal rights but face pay and workplace discrimination. In February 2021, the Federal Statistical Office reported that the pay gap increased from 18.1 percent in 2014 to 19 percent in 2018.
|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 were limited by COVID-19 measures in 2020 and 2021. Quarantine measures were relaxed by the Federal Council in January 2021.
|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 2020. Voters also supported same-sex marriage and adoption rights in a September 2021 referendum. The right to easily update identity documents, meanwhile, was included in the civil code and will take effect in January 2022.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
The Swiss government does not fully comply with international antitrafficking standards according to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2021. Swiss authorities made some efforts to support international trafficking investigations during the department’s reporting period, but sentencing of convicted traffickers was considered “lenient.”
In April 2021, Switzerland signed on to an ILO framework to combat forced labor, modern slavery, human trafficking, and child labor.
Labor regulations are generally enforced, but migrant workers are more vulnerable to exploitation. No nationwide minimum wage exists, though the cantons of Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel, and Ticino do maintain minimum wages. In June 2021, voters in the half-canton of Basel-Stadt approved a minimum wage.
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