Swiss Federal Council

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The Swiss Federal Council (German: Schweizerischer Bundesrat, French: Conseil fédéral suisse, Italian: Consiglio federale svizzero, Romansh: Cussegl federal svizzer) is the seven-member executive council which constitutes the government as well as the head of state of Switzerland.

Each of the seven Federal Councillors heads a department of the Swiss federal government. Following the elections of 10 December 2003, the members of the Federal Council are, in order of seniority:

  • Moritz Leuenberger, Federal Department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications, President of the Swiss Confederation in 2006.
  • Pascal Couchepin, Federal Department of Home Affairs
  • Samuel Schmid, Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports
  • Micheline Calmy-Rey, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, vice president of the Federal Council in 2006
  • Christoph Blocher, Federal Department of Justice and Police
  • Hans-Rudolf Merz, Federal Department of Finance
  • Doris Leuthard, Federal Department of Economic Affairs

Origins and history of the Federal Council

Origins of the institution

The Federal Council was instituted by the 1848 Federal Constitution as the "supreme executive and directorial authority of the Confederation".

When the Constitution was written, constitutional democracy was still in its infancy, and the founding fathers of Switzerland had little in the way of examples. While they drew heavily on the U.S. Constitution for the organisation of the federal state as a whole, they opted for the collegial rather than the presidential system for the executive branch of government. This accommodated the long tradition of the rule of collective bodies in Switzerland. Under the Ancien Régime, the cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy had been governed by councils of pre-eminent citizens since time immemorial, and the later Helvetic Republic (with its equivalent Directorate) as well as the cantons that had given themselves liberal constitutions since the 1830s had also made good experiences with that mode of governance.

While it has served Switzerland well, the collegial system of government (like other idiosyncrasies of Swiss democracy, such as direct democracy) has not found widespread adoption in modern democracies. Today, only two other states have collective rather than unitary heads of state and government.

Changes in composition

The 1848 constitutional provision providing for the Federal Council — and indeed the institution of the Council itself — has remained unchanged to this day, even though Swiss society has changed profoundly since. The Federal Council thus represents one of the longest traditions of continuous democratic government in the world, comparable to that of the offices of the U.S. President or the British Prime Minister. Nonetheless, some significant developments deserve to be mentioned here.

Party representation

The 1848 Constitution was one of the few successes of the democratic revolutions of 1848. In Switzerland, the democratic movement was led — and the new federal state decisively shaped — by the Radicals (presently the Free Democratic Party, FDP). After winning the Sonderbundskrieg, the Swiss civil war, against the Catholic cantons, the Radicals at first used their majority in the Federal Assembly to fill all the seats on the Federal Council. This made their former war opponents, the Catholic-Conservatives (presently the Christian Democratic People's Party, CVP), the opposition party. Only after Emil Welti's resignation in 1891 after a failed referendum on railway nationalisation, the Radicals decided to co-opt the Conservatives by supporting the election of Josef Zemp.

The process of involving all major political movements of Switzerland into the responsibility of government continued during the first half of the 20th century. It was hastened by the FDP's and CVP's gradually diminishing voter share, complemented by the rise of new parties of lesser power at the ends of the political spectrum. These were the Social Democratic Party (SP) on the Left and the Party of Farmers, Traders and Independents (BGB; presently the People's Party, SVP) on the Right. In due course, the CVP received its second seat in 1919 with Jean-Marie Musy, while the BGB joined the Council in 1929 with Rudolf Minger. In 1943, during World War II, the Social Democrats were also temporarily included with Ernst Nobs.

The 1954 elections, following the resignation of four Councillors, finally established the Zauberformel, the "magical formula" that determined the Council's composition during the rest of the 20th century and established the present nature of the Council as a permanent, voluntary grand coalition. In approximate relation to the parties' respective strength in the Federal Assembly, the seats were distributed as follows:

  • Free Democratic Party: 2 members,
  • Christian Democratic People's Party: 2 members,
  • Social Democratic Party: 2 members, and
  • Swiss People's Party: 1 member.

During that time, the FDP and CVP very slowly but steadily kept losing voter share to the SVP and SP, respectively, who overtook the older parties in popularity during the 1990s. The governmental balance was finally upset after the 2003 elections, when the now-powerful SVP demanded a CVP Council seat for their leader Christoph Blocher and threatened to otherwise leave the government. The Assembly (including many CVP representatives) acceded to that demand and ousted CVP Councillor Ruth Metzler-Arnold. It remains to be seen whether this shift in composition endures, or whether the Council's composition will remain contested and changeable.

Women on the council

Women, who gained suffrage on the federal level as late as 1971, have historically not been well represented on the Council. Only five out of 109 Councillors (or out of 27 Councillors elected since 1971) have been women.

Also, many women have not had much luck with their political careers at the Federal Council level:

  • In 1983, the non-election of the first official female candidate, Lilian Uchtenhagen, and again in 1993 the non-election of Christiane Brunner (both SP), caused a stir. The Social Democrats each time considered withdrawing from the Council altogether.
  • The first woman Councillor, Elisabeth Kopp (FDP), elected 1984, had to resign over a scandal in 1989.
  • The third woman Councillor, young Ruth Metzler-Arnold (CVP), was not reelected after one term of office in 2003 (see above).

Only the second and fourth woman Councillors, former Councillor Ruth Dreifuss and present Councillor Micheline Calmy-Rey (both SP), have (so far) had normal careers. The fifth woman Councillor, Doris Leuthard (CVP), took up her office on August 1, 2006.

Dreifuss was President of the Confederation in 1999. Calmy-Rey is currently Vice-President, and if tradition holds she will be President in 2007.

Regional balancing acts

Up until 1999, the Constitution mandated that no canton could hold more than one seat on the Federal Council. Until 1987, the place of origin was used to determine which canton a Federal Councilor was from. After 1987, the place of residence (or, for councilors who were previously members of the Federal Assembly or of a Canton's legislative or executive body, the canton in which they got elected) became the determinant factor. Nothing prevented candidates to move to politically expedient Cantons, though, and the rule was abandoned in 1999. Since then, the Constitution mandates an equitable distribution of seats among the Cantons and language regions of the country, without setting concrete quotas.

Historically, at least two Council seats have always been held by French- or Italian-speaking Swiss, and no Canton has in fact ever had more than one of its citizens on the Federal Council. Since December 2003, however, two of the members of the Federal Council, Moritz Leuenberger and Christoph Blocher, reside in the Canton of Zürich.

Operation of the Federal Council


Each year, one of the seven Councillors is elected by the Federal Assembly as President of the Confederation. The Federal Assembly also elects a Vice President. By convention, the positions of President and Vice President rotate annually, each Councillor thus becoming Vice President and then President every seven years while in office.

According to the Swiss order of precedence, the President of the Confederation is the highest-ranking Swiss official. He or she presides over Council meetings and carries out certain representative functions that, in other countries, are the business of the Head of State. In urgent situations where a Council decision cannot be made in time, her or she is empowered to act on behalf of the whole Council. Apart from that, though, he or she is a primus inter pares, having no power above and beyond the other six Councillors.

The President is not the Swiss head of state (this function is carried out by the Council in corpore, that is, in its entirety). However, it has recently become usual that the President acts and is recognized as head of state while conducting official visits abroad, as the Council (also by convention) doesn't leave the country in corpore. More often, though, official visits abroad are carried out by the head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Visiting heads of state are received by the Federal Council in corpore.

Council meetings

The Federal Council operates mainly through weekly meetings, which are held each Wednesday at the Bundeshaus in Bern, the seat of the Swiss federal government.

Apart from the seven Councillors, the following officials also attend the meetings:

  • Federal Chancellor Annemarie Huber-Hotz. As government chief of staff, she participates in the discussion but has no vote in the Council's decisions. Nonetheless, her influential position is often referred to as that of a "eighth Federal Councillor".
  • the two Vice-Chancellors: Corina Casanova and Oswald Sigg. Sigg is the spokesman of the Federal Council and conducts the weekly press briefing after the meeting.

After the meetings, the Councillors always take lunch together. The Council also meets regularly in conclave to discuss important topics at length, and annually conducts what is colloquially referred to as its "school excursion", a day trip to some attractions in the President's home canton. In that and other respects, the Council operates not unlike a board of directors of a major corporation.

Decisions and responsibilities

Each Federal Councillor heads a government department, much like the ministers in the governments of other countries. Colloquially and by the press, they are often referred to as ministers, e.g. the head of the DDPS as "minister of defence", even though no such post officially exists. However, as Council members, they are not only responsible for their own department, but also for the business of their colleagues' departments as well, and for the conduct of the government and the federal administration as a whole.

Decisions to be taken by the Council are always prepared by the responsible department. For example, a change in the salaries of federal employees would be proposed to the council by the head of the Federal Department of Finance, to whose department the Federal Office of Personnel belongs. Before a vote is taken at a Council meeting, though, all proposals are circulated in writing to the heads of departments, who commission the senior career officials of their department - the heads of the Federal Offices - to prepare a written response to offer criticism and suggestions. This is called the co-report procedure (Mitberichtsverfahren/procédure de co-rapport), designed to build a wide consensus ahead of a Council meeting.

To prepare for important decisions, an additional public consultation is sometimes conducted, to which the Cantons, the political parties and major interest groups are invited, and in which all members of the public can participate. If a change in a federal statute is to be proposed to the Federal Assembly, this step is mandated by law. In such cases, the consultation procedure also serves to identify political concerns that could later be the focus of a popular referendum to stop passage of the bill at issue.

The decisions themselves are formally taken by voice vote by a majority of the Councillors present at a meeting. However, the great majority of decisions are arrived at by consensus; even though lately there is said to be a trend towards more contentious discussions and close votes.


The meetings of the Federal Council and the result of the votes taken are not open to the public, and the records remain sealed for 50 years. This has lately been the subject of some criticism. In particular, the parties at the ends of the political spectrum argue that this secrecy is contrary to the principle of transparency. However, the Council has always maintained that secrecy is necessary to arrive at consensus and to preserve the collegiality and political independence of the individual Councillors.

Despite the secrecy rule, details of the votes and the arguments in Council are sometimes leaked to the press, resulting in (generally fruitless) investigations and criminal prosecutions of the leaking staff member.

Constitutional conventions

Due to the Federal Council's unique nature as a voluntary grand coalition of political opponents, its operation is subject to numerous constitutional conventions. Most notable is the principle of collegiality, that is, the Councillors are supposed not to publicly criticise one another, even though they are often political opponents. In effect, they are expected to publicly support all decisions of the Council, even against their own personal opinion or that of their political party. In the eye of many observers, this convention has become rather strained after the 2003 elections (see below).

Election and composition

Election mode

The members of the Federal Council are elected for a term of four years by both chambers of the federal parliament sitting together as the Federal Assembly. Each Councillor is elected individually by secret ballot by an absolute majority of votes. Every adult Swiss citizen is eligible, but in practice, only Members of Parliament or more rarely, members of Cantonal governments are nominated by the political parties and receive a substantial amount of votes. The voting is conducted in several rounds: in the first two rounds, anyone can enter their name; but in subsequent rounds, the person receiving the least votes is removed from the race until one candidate gains an absolute majority.

With Council seats allocated to parties by unwritten agreement (see above), Federal Council elections generally are unexciting, pleasant affairs. Usually, the party which has a seat to fill presents two candidates with mainstream viewpoints to the United Federal Assembly, who then chooses one. This was not so, however, during the 2003 election, which was the most controversial in recent memory (see also above).

Once elected, Councillors remain members of their political parties, but hold no leading office with them. In fact, they usually maintain a certain political distance to the party leadership, because under the rules of collegiality, they will often have to publicly promote a Council decision which does not match the political conviction of their party (or of themselves).

Present political composition

Currently ( as of 2006), the Council is considered to have a conservative and liberal (in the classical sense) majority, composed of Pascal Couchepin / Hans-Rudolf Merz (FDP) and Christoph Blocher / Samuel Schmid (SVP). On the Left, there are SP members Moritz Leuenberger and Micheline Calmy-Rey. The exact alignment of the newest Councillor, Doris Leuthard from the centrist CVP, is yet to become clear, but her predecessor Joseph Deiss was said to vote sometimes with one wing of the council and sometimes with the other. It is sometimes reported that liberal Councillor Pascal Couchepin often casts the decisive vote on divisive issues, although due to the Council's rule of secrecy, all such information must be taken with caution.


Once elected for a four-year-term, Federal Councillors can neither be voted out of office by a motion of no confidence nor can they be impeached. Reelection is possible for an indefinite number of terms, and it has historically been extremely rare for Parliament not to reelect a sitting Councillor. This has only happened thrice - to Ulrich Ochsenbein in 1854, to Jean-Jacques Challet-Venel in 1872 and to Ruth Metzler-Arnold in 2003. In practice, therefore, Councillors serve until they decide to resign and retire to private life, usually after three to five terms of office.

Status of Federal Councillors

Councillors' lives

Unlike most senior members of government in other countries, the Federal Councillors are not entitled to an official residence. Mostly, they have chosen to rent apartments or hotel suites in Bern (at their own expense); the only contemporary exception being Moritz Leuenberger, who daily commutes by train from Zürich to Bern. However, they are entitled to use the Federal Council's country estate, Lohn, for holidays; this estate is also used to host official guests of the Swiss Confederation.

While Councillors can draw on an Army security detail if they need personal protection (in particular during official events), it is more usual to encounter them without any escort at all in the streets, restaurants and tramways of Bern. Councillors are also entitled to a personal bailiff (Weibel) who accompanies them, in a colourful uniform, to official events. This tradition is directly traceable — through the republican governments of the ancient Swiss cantons — back to the lictors of the ancient Roman Republic.

The spouses of Councillors do not play an official part in the business of government, apart from accompanying the Councillors to official receptions.

Councillors' salary

Federal Councillors draw a yearly remuneration of CHF 400,000 (circa EUR 256,000 / USD 305,000) . After completing a full term of office, they are entitled to a perennial yearly pension of half that amount after leaving office.

While Councillors are forbidden by law to hold any other post during their term of office, it is not unusual for them to accept lucrative business engagements after leaving office, e.g. in the board of directors of major Swiss corporations.


Federal Councillors, like Members of Parliament, enjoy absolute legal immunity for all statements made in their official capacity.

For crimes and misdemeanors not relating to their official capacity, they can be criminally prosecuted only with the permission of the Federal Council as a whole while in office. The prosecutor can appeal a refusal to grant permission to the Federal Assembly.

Prosecution for crimes and misdemeanors that do relate to the Councillors' official capacity requires the assent of the Federal Assembly. In such cases, Parliament can also suspend the Councillor in office (but not actually remove her or him).

According to statements to the media by a Federal Chancellory official, in none of the few cases of accusations against a Federal Councillor has the permission to prosecute ever been granted. Such cases usually involved statements considered offensive by members of the public. However, one unnamed Councillor involved in a traffic accident immediately prior to his date of resignation was reported to have voluntarily waived his immunity, and Councillor Elisabeth Kopp decided to resign upon facing an inquiry over allegations of secrecy violations.

Assessment and calls for change

Historically, the collegial government of Switzerland has been assessed both internationally and nationally as exceptionally competent and stable. The Federal Council as a whole (although not individual members) has consistently maintained public approval and confidence rates in excess of sixty percent, possibly also because under the Swiss system of direct democracy, voters can vent their displeasure with government decisions when deciding individual issues at the ballot box.

However, lately there has been a growing contention that the Federal Council is often too slow to respond to the needs of the moment, too resistant to change and too weak to lead the powerful federal bureaucracy. Various changes have been proposed to address these issues, including expanding the powers of the presidency, expanding the Federal Council itself or adding a second layer of ministers between the Council and the departments. None of these proposals has yet borne fruit, however.

After the 2003 elections, many observers have also noted that many present councillors tend to behave as self-centered alpha males (or alpha female, in the case of Councillor Calmy-Rey) instead of as team players as has historically been the case. They point to the visible mutual animosity and breaches of collegiality notably between Christoph Blocher and Pascal Couchepin / Moritz Leuenberger, respectively. Others, however, contend that such confrontations have always occurred, but now tend to be hyped by media eager to report on juicy political conflicts.

If Switzerland were ever to join the European Union (which as of 2006 does not appear likely to happen in the next five to ten years), it would certainly have to reform its system of governance and direct democracy in order to allow its members of the government to make binding decisions at the European Council level.

List of "firsts" in the Federal Council

  • 1848: The first seven members elected: Ochsenbein, Furrer, Munzinger, Druey, Frey-Herosé, Naeff and Franscini.
  • 1854: First (of only three so far) sitting Federal Councillors not to be reelected, Ulrich Ochsenbein.
  • 1891: First Councillor of the Christian Democratic People's Party of Switzerland, Josef Zemp.
  • 1893: First (and only) son of a former member being elected to the council, Eugène Ruffy, son of Victor Ruffy.
  • 1911: First (and only) octogenarian in office, Adolf Deucher.
  • 1917: First (and only) Councillor of the Liberal Party elected, Gustave Ador.
  • 1930: First Councillor of the Party of Farmers, Traders and Independents (BGB/PAI; now the Swiss People's Party), Rudolf Minger.
  • 1943: First Councillor of the Social Democratic Party, Ernst Nobs.
  • 1983: First female candidate for the Council from a government party, Lilian Uchtenhagen ( SP)
  • 1984: First woman Councillor, Elisabeth Kopp ( FDP).
  • 1993: First Councillor of Jewish origin, Ruth Dreifuss (SP).
  • 1993: First openly agnostic Councillor, Ruth Dreifuss (SP).
  • 1995: First Councillor living in a domestic partnership, Moritz Leuenberger (SP) (with architect Gret Loewensberg, whom he later married).
  • 1999: First woman President of the Confederation, Ruth Dreifuss (SP).

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