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Switzerland, Government

indirect democracy, granted women, Swiss voters, equal rights amendment, principle of federalism

Switzerland is a federal republic governed under a constitution adopted in 1874 and amended many times since. The Swiss political system combines direct and indirect democracy with the principle of federalism, in which subnational units of government are granted wide powers. Sovereign power rests with the people, who elect representatives and also legislate directly by means of referendums. In federal elections, all citizens aged 18 or older are eligible to vote.

Under Switzerland’s system of federalism, the cantons and half-cantons exercise all the powers of government, except those delegated exclusively to the federal government. These include the power to declare war and make peace, to conclude treaties and alliances, to train, equip, and direct the armed forces, and to regulate foreign trade. Both the federal government and the subnational units (cantons and communes) have the power to levy taxes. The federal government also regulates roads, railroads, and communications; hydroelectric power; higher education; and labor. The cantons have freedom in a wide range of policy areas and a high degree of administrative autonomy.

The referendum is an important instrument of direct democracy in Switzerland. A constitutional amendment may be initiated by a petition of 100,000 voters and must be ratified by referendum. A petition of 50,000 voters or eight cantons can force a referendum on proposed laws. Referendums have decided many significant issues in Switzerland. These include creating the canton of Jura in 1979; rejecting restrictions on abortion and some forms of contraception in 1985; tightening constraints on immigration and political asylum in 1987; making racial discrimination, racist propaganda, and denial of the German Nazi Holocaust illegal in 1994; and defeating a proposal to abolish the military in 2001. In 2002 Swiss voters approved a referendum supporting Swiss membership in the United Nations. Referendums have also been central to extending rights to women. A referendum in 1971 granted women the right to vote in federal elections (a right eventually extended in all the cantons by 1990), and an equal rights amendment to the constitution was approved by referendum in 1981. A 1985 referendum granted women legal equality with men in marriage.

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