When you are living in Switzerland, it is essential that you know how the state structure works. The government and agencies in Switzerland are important in their role in buying a house or renting an apartment and have a profound impact when coming to Switzerland for you and your family.
Switzerland is a direct democracy with a strong tradition of government in consensus. This means that although there are elections to decide who makes up the government of Switzerland, at the highest level they are meant to work together, regardless of political affiliation. The majority of new legislation comes from citizens and major decisions have to be put to the public before it can be made law.
If you have ever wondered why the president of Switzerland changes every year and is mostly unknown outside of global politics, you have the Swiss political system to thank.
President of Switzerland
Although mostly ceremonial, the president of Switzerland plays a fundamental role in Swiss democracy, breaking ties in the executive Federal Council while performing the duties of both a "head of state" and a minister of government. The position is rotated among the Federal Council every year. The president for 2023 is Alain Berset of Canton Fribourg, with Viola Amherd of Canton Valais as vice president.
Elections & Referendums
If you’ve ever seen a large advertisement on the side of the road with a cartoon that asks you for a yes (JA) or a no (NEIN) vote, you will have encountered a Swiss election or referendum.
Elections and referendums in Switzerland are commonplace, with citizens able to vote on all issues currently affecting the country. In addition to regular elections for federal, cantonal, and council representatives, you are also able to vote on large projects and social issues to determine what the Swiss government does. Issues can range from housing and salaries to controls on Swiss banks and the environment.
More recently, some cantons have begun to allow expats to vote, making it more important to understand how the system works.
Swiss councils (Gemeinde)
The main government institution that expats will experience firsthand is that of the local Swiss council (Gemeinde). The council is responsible for the majority of official issues that expats face. They are responsible for the levy of taxes, grant you visas and residence permits, as well as hand out the majority of social security. It is impossible for a new arrival to Switzerland to not encounter a Gemeinde, so it is essential you know where your nearest one is and what services it offers.