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One often hears the term “Direct Democracy” linked to the political system in Switzerland, without really understanding what this actually means. In October 2023, Federal elections are scheduled and in this post we lift the hood on Swiss politics: from the structure of parliament, the roles and powers of the various bodies, who the President of Switzerland is and how direct democracy actually works. We also look at forecasted trends for the up-coming election.

Swiss Parliament – Structure

There are 26 cantons and four official languages in Switzerland, which is governed by the Federal Council, a seven-member collegial body with a rotating president and whose decisions are made by consensus.

Under the Federal Council, Switzerland’s parliament has two chambers:

  • The National Council – which represents the people. It is  made up of 200 members. Seats are allotted to the 26 cantons on the basis of their resident population. At present, each member of the National Council represents approximately 42’000 people.
  • The Council of States – which represents the each of the 26 cantons.

Federal elections will be held on 22 October 2023 to elect all members of the National Council and the Council of States. These elections will be followed by elections of the Federal Council on 13 December 2023.

There is no upper or lower house in Switzerland unlike other countries and the two chambers debate items of business on an equal footing and each have the same competences and roles. Swiss parliament holds four sessions each year. These sessions each last for 3 weeks and take part in March, June, September and December.

Members of Parliament are elected for a four-year term in Switzerland and as Parliament does not sit all year round, most politicians exercise another occupation in addition to politics.



Direct Democracy

Switzerland is governed under a federal system at three levels and thanks to direct democracy, citizens have a say directly on decisions at all political levels. Such votes can be called when Parliament proposes a constitutional change or modification for example, and the citizen’s challenge requires 100’000 signatures for federal change. This must be done within 18 months from launch of the initiative.

The structure of Swiss parliament reflects the diverse geographic and cultural landscapes of Switzerland. There are 7 federal councillors, 26 cantonal governments, 2,172 communal councils and 5.5 million voters shaping Switzerland’s destiny. And as described above, any citizen with the right to vote, can launch a challenge to a federal law.

The President of Switzerland

Switzerland does not have a prime minister. Instead, it has a president, but the presidency is not the same as we see in other countries. In Switzerland, the president actually serves a one-year term as the head of the Federal Council. The current president of Switzerland is Mr. Alain Berset who was elected President of the Swiss Confederation for 2023 on 7 December 2022. It is his second term as president.

Voting on 23 October 2023

As stated, the vote in October is to select the cantonal political parties and individual members of the National Council and the Council of States. According to the latest polls taken recently, the political landscape in Switzerland is changing and showing a drift to the right compared to the last federal election in 2019. So what are the reasons for this?

  • Rising health insurance premiums with over 51% of Swiss voters concerned about these.
  • Immigration with voters looking to the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP), to control the flow of migrants into Switzerland.
  • Polarisation of voters with greens not trusting socialists and vice versa.

Political parties growing in popularity 

  • the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP showing +2.5 percentage points for a total of 28.1% and now Switzerland’s largest political party)
  • the Socialist Party (+1.5 for a total of 18.3% support and now Switzerland’s second largest party.
  • the Centre Party (+0.5)

Green parties are on the decline

Due in part to the tangible life issues and rising costs described above, voters are now looking to the socialists as being more aligned to help with their personal finances rather than green issues.

  • the Green Party has lost 3.5 percentage points, to record only 9.7% support of those polled.
  • the Liberal Green Party has lost 1 percentage point to leave it with only 6.8% support of those polled





Switzerland is in many ways, a unique country and that applies to the political system just as much as it does to the different cultural and language areas. Switzerland is truly consensus driven society where the voice of the last voter can be heard loud and clear.

Recent polls conducted for the up-coming elections in Switzerland, indicate a movement to the right driven by three main influencing factors: Increased health care costs, Immigration and a polarisation of political views among the electorate.

This should not come as a surprise. In most countries – in good times, people vote for luxury issues such as green solutions – while in more challenging financial times, people vote with their wallets rather than their hearts. It seems in this respect, the Swiss are no different to everybody else!

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