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As first among equals, the Federal Council member serving as President of the Confederation is not considered the Swiss head of State. Rather, the entire Federal Council is considered a collective Head of State.
The constitutional provisions relating to the organisation of the Federal Government and Federal Administration are set out in section 1 of Chapter 3 of the Swiss Federal Constitution at articles 174 to 179. Article 176 specifically relates to the Presidency.
In addition to the control of their own Department, the President carries out some of the representative duties of a Head of State. At first this was only the case inside Switzerland: The President gives speeches on the New Year and the Swiss National Holiday (1st August). More recently, added foreign visits means that the President also often travels abroad.
However, because the Swiss have no single Head of State, the country also carries out no state visits. When traveling abroad, the President does so only as an ordinary Minister of a government Department.
Visiting heads of state are received by the seven members of the Federal Council together, rather than by the President of the Confederation. Treaties are signed on behalf of the full Council, with all Federal Council members signing letters of credence and other documents of the kind.
In the 19th century, the election of the Federal President was an award for especially esteemed Federal Council members. However, a few influential members of the government were regularly passed over. One such example was St. Galler Wilhelm Matthias Naeff, who belonged to the government for twenty-seven years, but was federal president only once in 1853.
Since the twentieth century, the election has usually not been disputed. There is an unwritten rule that the member of the Federal Council who has not been Federal President the longest becomes president. Therefore every Federal Council member gets a turn at least once every seven years. The only question in the elections that provides some tension is the question of how many votes the person who is to be elected president receives. This is seen as a test of their popularity. In the 1970s and 1980s, 200 votes (of 246 possible) was seen as an excellent result. However, in the current era of growing party-political conflicts, 180 votes are already considered a respectable outcome.
Until 1920 it was usually customary for the serving federal president to also take over the Foreign Ministry. Therefore every year there was a moving around of posts, as the retiring president moved back to his old department and the new president moved into the foreign ministry. Likewise, it was traditional for the federal president, even as foreign minister, not to leave Switzerland during his year in office.
The 2008 President of the Confederation is Pascal Couchepin, elected on 12 December 2007 to succeed Micheline Calmy-Rey. On 13 December 2007, Hans-Rudolf Merz was elected vice-president; if tradition holds, he will be elected president in 2009.