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POLITICS

A foreigner’s guide to understanding Swiss politics in five minutes

In view of Sunday’s much-publicised referendum where the Covid-19 legislation was strongly approved by Swiss voters, you may be wondering about the country’s political system. This is what you should know about it.

Switzerland holds referenda four times a year, with several issues often decided at each ballot
Frequent voting is a unique feature of Swiss political system. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

In many ways, Switzerland’s political system is different from that in most other countries, and it may become confusing to newcomers (or even those who have been here for a while). 

For instance, foreigners in Switzerland probably became more familiar with some politicians during the Covid pandemic, as their  (often masked) faces — like that of Health Minister Alain Berset — were frequently in the news.

Also the term “Federal Council” has often been mentioned in the media during the health crisis.

You may also have been perplexed by the fact that at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 Switzerland had one president — Simonetta Sommaruga — and this year there is another, Guy Parmelin, without an election having taken place the meantime.

This is just one aspect of Swiss politics that is unique in Europe and possibly elsewhere as well.

That’s because unlike most other nations, Switzerland doesn’t have a single president or a prime minister. Instead, it has the executive branch, or Federal Council, whose seven members  serve as the collective head of state.

They represent the four major parties and political leanings in the parliament — the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to the right, Social Democrats to the left, as well as The Center and The Liberals in the middle.

The 2021 Federal Council. Photo by admin.ch

The number of seats each party holds corresponds to the number of seats they have in the parliament. Therefore, the SVP has two members in the Federal Council (current president Guy Parmelin and Ueli Maurer), as has the Social Democratic Party (Berset and Simonetta Sommaruga). Others, like Viola Amherd are from The Center party, while Karin Sutter-Keller and Ignazio Cassis represent the Liberals.

Each federal councillor also heads a government department.

Despite undoubtedly having a divergence of opinions due to their different party affiliations, all the members of the Federal Council make the decisions jointly, based on the principle of collegiality and consensus — that is, what is best for Switzerland and not necessarily for their own parties.

If there is a disagreement among the councillors in private, we, the public, are not privy to it, as they are mandated to present a united front.

The Federal Council is elected by the parliament every four years; parliament members, on the other hand (both the lower house, the National Council, and the upper chamber, the Council of States), are elected by the people.

MPs in Swiss parliament propose new legislation. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

And what about the president?

The President of Switzerland is elected for a one-year term by the parliament.  However, he or she is not  the head of the government, has no special power, and their role is to chair the Federal Council meetings, mediate in the case of disputes, and represent Switzerland abroad.

Since the presidency changes in a blink of an eye, it is not surprising many Swiss don’t even know who their president is in a given year.

Who decides what laws are implemented in the country — the Federal Council or the the parliament?

Neither.

And this is where the Swiss system is unique, as in Switzerland all the political power belongs to the people.

Unlike other nations, where elected officials make decisions on behalf of their constituents, in Switzerland a centuries-old tradition of direct democracy gives people — rather than lawmakers — the power to shape local and national policies.

No legislation can be enacted here until citizens approve it in a referendum. In this way, they can have a say in a political process that impacts their lives.

The Covid-19 law for example, was initially approved by voters on June 9th.

READ MORE: Swiss voters back Covid pass law

People can also create their own laws (within reason, of course). Any group or a citizen over over the age of 18 can launch an initiative by collecting 100,000 signatures within 18 months. Petitions must conform with legal requirements— anyone who signs it must be eligible to vote in Switzerland and provide their address for identification purposes.

Sunday’s vote was an example of such an initiative. A group called Friends of the Constitution launched an initiative to repeal a revision of the Covid law that pertains specifically to the Covid certificate. They were, however, defeated.

But if an initiative is approved by the voters — as the nursing initiative was on Sunday — the Federal Council must figure out a way to implement it.

READ MORE: Referendum: Why are the Swiss voting on nursing conditions?

The Swiss typically vote in referendums four times a year — more than any other nation.

However, if a piece of legislation that the parliament and the Federal Council want to enact is rejected by voters, the government has no choice but accept the defeat.

They have to adhere to the words an American politician famously uttered after he lost an election in the 1960s: “The people have spoken — the bastards”.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

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For members

LEARNING FRENCH

How to talk email, websites, social media and phone numbers in Swiss French

It's a very common experience to have to give out your phone number or email address in Switzerland, or take down the address of a website, so here's how to do this if you're in the French-speaking part of the country.

How to talk email, websites, social media and phone numbers in Swiss French

The correct names for punctuation marks used to be fairly low down on any French-learner’s list, but these days they are vital whenever you need to explain an email address, website or social media account.

Likewise if you want to talk about websites, or social media posts, there are some things that you need to know. 

Punctuation

Obviously punctuation points have their own names, and making sure you get the periods, dashes and underscores correct is vital to giving out account details. 

Full stop/period . point. Pronounced pwan, this is most commonly heard for Swiss websites or email addresses which end in. ch (pronounced pwan ce ash).

If you have a site that ends in .com you say ‘com’ as a word just as you would in English – pwan com.

At symbol @ Arobase – so for example the email address [email protected] would be jean pwan dupont arobas bluewin pwan ce ash.

Ampersand/and symbol & esperluette

Dash – tiret

Underscore _ tiret bas 

Forward slash / barre oblique

Upper case/capital lettersMajuscule (or lettre majuscule)

Lower caseminiscule

The following punctuation points are less common in email or web addresses, but worth knowing anyway:

Comma , virgule. In French a decimal point is indicated with a comma so two and a half would be 2,5 (deux virgule cinq)

Exclamation mark ! point d’exclamation – when you are writing in French you always leave a space between the final letter of the word and the exclamation mark – comme ça !

Question mark ? point d’interrogation – likewise, leave a space between the final character and a question mark 

Brackets/parentheses ( ) parenthèse

Quotation marks « » guillemets 

Numbers

If you need to give your phone number out, the key thing to know is that Swiss-French people pair the numbers in a phone number when speaking.

So say your number is 079 345 6780, in French you would say zero septante-neuf, trois-cents quarante-cinq, soixante-sept, huitante (zero seventy-nine, three hundred forty-five, sixty-seven, eighty ).

Mobile numbers in Switzerland  begin with 079 or 078 (zero septante-neuf or zero septante-huit).

Social media

If you want to give out your Twitter or Instagram handle, the chances are you might need to know some punctuation terms as described above.

Otherwise the good news is that a lot of English-language social media terms are used in Switzerland too.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have the same names in Switzerland and have entered the language in other ways too, for example you might describe your dinner as très instagrammable – ie it’s photogenic and would look good on Instagram.

On Twitter you can suivre (follow), aimer (like) or retweet (take a wild guess). You’ll often hear the English words for these terms too, though pronounced with a French accent.

There is a French translation for hashtag – it’s dièse mot, but in reality hashtag is also very widely used.

Tech is one of those areas where new concepts come along so quickly that the English terms often get embedded into everyday use before the French-speakers can think up an alternative.

READ MORE: French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

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