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 the four largest political parties represented in the parliament. The 26 cantons that make up the Swiss Confederation have considerable decision-making power, and the public is often asked to weigh 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.
Key Developments in 2018:
- A new data-retention law came into effect in March, forcing mobile phone and internet service providers to retain user data for six months.
- Also in March, referendum voters rejected a proposal to eliminate general broadcasting fees that finance the operations of the country’s public broadcaster.
- In a November referendum, voters rejected the so-called self-determination initiative, which would have prioritized Swiss law over international law.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 39 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
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 all of the large parties in the Federal Assembly. The presidency is largely ceremonial and rotates annually among the Federal Council’s members. In December 2018, Ueli Maurer of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was elected president by the Federal Assembly in accordance with the law.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
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 last elections were held in 2015. In the National Council, the right-wing SVP won 65 seats, up from the 54 it previously held. The Social Democratic Party (SP) won 43 seats, the Free Democratic Party of Switzerland (FDP) took 33 seats, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) captured 27 seats, and the Green Party won 7 seats. In the Council of States, the FDP and the CVP won 13 seats each, the SP took 12, and three other parties split the remainder.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
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.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
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 is stable, but it remains open to new groups.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
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. The government also relies on referendums to decide on contentious policy issues. The Federal Council currently comprises two members each from the SVP, the SP, and the FDP, and one member from the CVP.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
The people’s political choices are generally free from domination by democratically unaccountable entities. However, the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) has criticized Switzerland for failing to address the lack of transparency in party financing. Civil society leaders contend that the opaque campaign finance system allows wealthy interests to influence the platforms of the major political parties. In March 2018, referendum voters in the cantons of Fribourg and Schwyz approved measures for increased party-finance transparency. Activists are currently pushing for a transparency referendum at the federal level, though the government in August said the initiative was not necessary.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Restrictive citizenship laws and procedures tend to exclude many immigrants, as well as their children, from political participation. About a quarter of the population is made of up noncitizens, though more than a third of these are citizens of neighboring countries. In August 2018, a Muslim couple was denied Swiss citizenship due in part to their refusal to shake hands with members of the other sex during talks on their naturalization.
Women participate robustly in Swiss politics, both as voters and candidates for office. In the 2015 elections, 64 women were elected to the National Council.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 12 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Switzerland’s freely elected officials are able to determine and effectively 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. Referendums, which are used extensively, are mandatory for any amendments to the federal constitution, the joining of international organizations, or major changes to federal laws.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 4 / 4
Safeguards against corruption are generally effective. In 2018, evidence emerged that Pierre Maudet, head of the Geneva cantonal government, had accepted benefits from the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in 2015, prompting the Geneva public prosecutor to announce plans for an investigation in August. Maudet resigned in September.
Switzerland remains on a European Union (EU) “grey list” of countries that have been uncooperative in abolishing questionable tax policies and discouraging tax avoidance, though it took steps to increase cooperation and the automatic exchange of tax information during 2018.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
The government is generally transparent in its operations. In June 2018, the National Council rejected restrictions on access to government procurement documents for the public and the media, which had been proposed by the Federal Council as part of an ongoing overhaul of federal procurement laws.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 57 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
Freedom of the press is generally respected in practice. Switzerland has an open media environment, though the state-owned, editorially independent Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG/SSR) dominates the broadcast market. In a March 2018 referendum, a clear majority of Swiss citizens rejected an initiative to abolish the broadcasting fees that finance the SRG/SSR. Consolidation of newspaper ownership in the hands of large media conglomerates has forced the closure of some smaller newspapers in recent years.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
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. A debate surrounding proposals for a federal ban on burqas continued in 2018 and is likely to be put to a vote in the coming years. In September 2018, St. Gallen became the second canton to pass its own burqa ban, after Ticino in 2016.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is largely respected.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
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.
While the Federal Intelligence Service was granted wider surveillance powers in 2017, allowing it to monitor internet usage, bug private property, and tap the phone lines of suspected terrorists, the number of surveillance measures overall has declined in recent years. However, a law that came into effect in March 2018 requires mobile phone and internet service providers to retain user data for six months to facilitate the work of law enforcement agencies. This includes data on which websites users visited.
Also in 2018, a debate took place surrounding potential surveillance tactics to uncover social security and insurance fraud. The National Council in March approved measures such as the use of drones or location tracking, and a citizen initiative to stop these practices through a referendum failed in November.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations are free to operate without undue restrictions.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
Workers are generally free to form trade unions and other professional organizations. The rights to engage in collective bargaining and strikes are respected.
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
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. In May 2018, a group of civil society leaders formally launched an initiative to appoint federal judges by lot from a pool of qualified candidates and thus depoliticize the appointment procedure.
A so-called self-determination initiative was rejected by voters in a November referendum. The initiative would have given primacy to Swiss constitutional law over international law and thus cast doubt on Swiss participation in a range of international treaties, including the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. At the end of the year, Switzerland was negotiating a framework agreement with the EU, a contentious topic in the country, which is not an EU member state. Among other things, the agreement would clarify the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Switzerland and the applicability of EU law.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
The authorities generally observe legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention. The constitution’s due process guarantees ensure fair trial proceedings.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
Switzerland is free from war and other major threats to physical security. 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.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or religion, anti-immigrant attitudes have grown in recent years. An immigration law passed in 2016 included measures meant to curb mass migration from the EU. It also required employers to give preference to Swiss citizens in hiring practices. Despite this law and the government’s negotiations with the EU on the matter, the SVP proposed a referendum in 2017 calling for an end to free movement between Switzerland and the EU. No date for such a vote had been set as of 2018.
The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are legally protected, but minority groups—especially those of African and Central European descent, as well as Roma—face societal discrimination. Roma continue to seek official recognition as a minority in Switzerland. A report by the Federal Commission against Racism published in April 2018 noted a strong increase in racial discrimination over the past 10 years.
While women generally enjoy equal rights, gender pay gaps and discrimination in the workplace persist. The rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people are generally respected. In December 2018, the parliament passed an amendment to the antidiscrimination law that extended its protections to cover sexual orientation, but a similar amendment on gender identity was ultimately rejected.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Freedom of movement is respected, and there are no undue limitations on the ability to change one’s place of residence, employment, or education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
The rights to own property and operate private businesses remain unrestricted.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
Personal social freedoms are protected for most people. In a 2005 referendum, voters approved same-sex civil unions. Recognized since 2007, these unions grant many of the legal benefits of marriage. Limited adoption rights for same-sex civil partners came into effect in January 2018. The legalization of same-sex marriage and full adoption rights for same-sex couples were under consideration by the parliament during the year.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Although the government complies with international standards for combating human trafficking, according to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, Switzerland remains a destination country for victims. Labor regulations are generally enforced, but there is no national minimum wage, and migrant workers are more vulnerable to exploitive labor practices and dangerous working conditions.