Swiss Confederation

Swiss Confederation

Swiss Confederation: see Switzerland.
officially Swiss Confederation

Country, central Europe. Area: 15,940 sq mi (41,284 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 7,519,000. Capitals: Bern (administrative), Lausanne (judicial). The population is German, French, and Italian. Languages: German, French, Italian, Romansh (all official, with Romansh used locally). Religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant); also Islam. Currency: Swiss franc. Switzerland is divided into three regions: the meadow-covered Jura Mountains; the central Mittelland, a rich agricultural and urbanized area; and the lofty crags of the Alps. It is one of the world's major financial centres; its economy is based largely on international trade and banking, as well as light and heavy industries. Manufactures include watches, precision instruments, machinery, and chemicals. Tourism and agriculture are also important; products include grains, sugar beets, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, chocolate, and wine. Despite diverse ethnic groups, religions, and languages, Switzerland has maintained the world's oldest democracy for some 700 years. It is a federal state with two legislative houses; its head of state and government is the president of the federal council. The original inhabitants were the Helvetians, who were conquered by the Romans in the 1st century BC. Germanic tribes penetrated the region from the 3rd to the 6th century AD, and Muslim and Magyar raiders ventured in during the 10th century. It came under the rule of the Franks in the 9th century and the medieval empire (later the Holy Roman Empire) in the 11th century. In 1291 three cantons formed an anti-Habsburg league that became the nucleus of the Swiss Confederation. It was a centre of the Reformation, which divided the confederation and led to a period of political and religious conflict. The French organized Switzerland as the Helvetic Republic in 1798. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna recognized Swiss independence and guaranteed its neutrality. A new federal state was formed in 1848 with Bern as the capital. Switzerland remained neutral in both World War I and World War II and has continued to defend this neutrality. It joined the European Free Trade Association in 1960, but it has opted against joining the European Union. It joined the United Nations in 2002.

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The President of the Confederation (Bundespräsident, Président de la Confédération, Presidente della Confederazione, President da la Confederaziun) is the presiding member of the Swiss Federal Council, Switzerland's seven-member executive. Elected by the Federal Assembly for one year, the President of the Confederation chairs the meetings of the Federal Council and undertakes special representational duties. Primus inter pares, the President has no powers above the other Councillors and continues to head his department. Traditionally the duty rotates among the members in order of seniority and the previous year's Vice President becomes President.

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.


The Swiss President is not - as are for example the Presidents in Austria or Germany - the Head of State of the country. The Swiss Federal Constitution knows neither a Head of State nor a Head of Government. All of these functions are administered by the Federal Council collectively. If a tied vote occurs in the council, the President, being its Chair, casts the deciding vote.

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.


The President is elected by the Federal Assembly from the Federal Council in each case for one year.

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.


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