The Confederation's new authorities

The promulgation of the Federal Constitution of 1848 necessitated the establishment of new federal authorities for the entire Confederation: this concerned legislative (Federal Assembly), executive (Federal Council) and judiciary (Federal Court) authorities. Lastly, a Federal Administration was required for all of these authorities to be able to function; an administration responsible in particular for preparing and implementing federal legislation.


After the founding of the Confederation, a parliament with a bicameral system similar to that of the USA was introduced in Switzerland. The 200 seats in the National Council that represents the people are distributed among the cantons in proportion to the population count of each canton. Each canton elects two representatives to the Council of States; half-cantons are entitled to one seat each. The Council of States has had 46 members since the founding of the canton of Jura in 1979, the last canton to join the Confederation.

The two chambers are on equal footing with one another and have the same parliamentary means at their disposal. They form their own commissions.

Both chambers must reach a unanimous decision before a law can be adopted. A procedure for reconciling the versions of the two chambers is initiated if the decision is not unanimous. The two councils converge to form the United Federal Assembly for certain purposes such as electing the members of the Federal Council, the Federal Chancellor, the federal judges and the Attorney General. Every step of legislative and voting procedures is documented in minutes.

Federal Council

The Swiss government – the Federal Council – consists of seven Federal Councillors who are elected by the United Federal Assembly for a period of office of four years. In 1984, Elisabeth Kopp was the first woman to be elected to the Federal Council.

Federal Councillors take on the role of President for a year on the basis of their seniority in office. In this function, they chair the sessions of the Federal Council and fulfil certain representational duties. However, the President does not have more competencies than other Federal Councillors. Each Federal Councillor presides over a department. It is quite common for a Federal Councillor to preside over different departments during his or her period of office.

The Federal Council passes its resolutions during the sessions of the Federal Council meeting in which the Federal Chancellor also takes part.

Federal Chancellery

The Federal Chancellery was the only permanent organ at federal level between 1803 and the founding of the Confederation in 1848. At the time, the Federal Chancellor was also responsible for correspondence between the cantons, drafting the Tagsatzung minutes and the administration of the Central Archives.

The Federal Chancellery became the staff unit of the Federal Council in 1848. It therefore became responsible for coordinating the business of the Federal Council, informing the general public and publishing the Confederation's official publications (official [ger] and classified compilations of federal laws and the Federal Gazette [ger]). To this day it still organises polls, initiatives and referendums and is responsible for the bailiff's service.

Federal Administration

The Federal Administration is the executive organ of the Confederation and is supervised by the Federal Council. The Administration has developed at the same pace as federal duties have increased; the number of federal employees and documents produced has grown accordingly. The proportion of federal civil servants to the overall population has remained stable since 1950 (approx. 2%) and has even declined somewhat since the 1990s.

The most striking extensions to the scope of the Federal Administration occurred after the First World War and then again after 1945 with the incremental development of the modern social state. The Overview of the Fonds of the Federal Archives shows the various areas of activity of the Federal Administration.

Permanent extra-parliamentary commissions consisting of persons internal and external to the Administration can be created and assigned to the departments. They deal with specific issues and have a consultative or intermediary function. Examples include the Federal Commission for Women's Issues (1971-1990), the Federal National Park Commission  (1892-1965), the Federal Bank Commission (1837-1993) and the Federal Commission for the Promotion of Academic Research (1942-1991).

Federal Court

A Federal Court with independence from the legislative and executive organs was created with the promulgation of the Federal Constitution in 1848. Originally, this judicial authority was not intended to remain a permanent institution. The Federal Court in Lausanne did not become a permanent court until the revision of the Constitution in 1874. Additional federal judiciary authorities were added over the course of time: the Federal Insurance Court in Lucerne (1917), the Federal Penal Tribunal in Bellinzona (2004) and the Federal Administrative Court in St. Gallen (2007).

The separation of powers also led to the archives being maintained by the courts rather than the Swiss Federal Archives.

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Last modification 04.11.2019

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