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Switzerland's independence and neutrality have long been honored by the major European powers, and Switzerland was not involved in either of the two World Wars. The political and economic integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as Switzerland's role in many UN and international organizations, has strengthened Switzerland's ties with its neighbors. However, the country did not officially become a UN member until 2002. Switzerland remains active in many UN and international organizations, but retains a strong commitment to neutrality. Switzerland is a country in Central Europe. The main religion is christianity. The main languages are German, French and Italian. Switzerland became independent from the Austrians in Germany in 1499. The country is a federal parliamentary democratic republic

Switzerland sits at the crossroads of several major European cultures, which have heavily influenced the country's languages and cultural practices. Switzerland has four official languages -- German, French, Italian, and Romansch (based on Latin and spoken by a small minority in the Canton Graubuenden). The German spoken here is predominantly a Swiss dialect, but newspapers and some broadcasts tend to use High German. Many Swiss speak more than one language. English is widely known, especially among professionals.

More than 75% of the population lives in the central plain, which stretches between the Alps and the Jura Mountains and from Geneva in the west to the Rhine River and Lake Constance in the east. Resident foreigners and temporary foreign workers make up about 19% of the population.

Almost all Swiss are literate. Switzerland's 12 institutes of higher learning enrolled 91,400 students in academic year 1996-97, of which 19% were foreign students. The constitution guarantees freedom of worship.

Switzerland is a federal state composed of 26 cantons (20 are "full" cantons and six "half" cantons for purposes of representation in the federal legislature) that retain attributes of sovereignty, such as fiscal autonomy and the right to manage internal cantonal affairs. Under the 1874 constitution, cantons hold all powers not specifically delegated to the federation. Switzerland's federal institutions are:


A bicameral legislature -- the Federal Assembly;


A collegial executive of seven members -- the Federal Council; and


A judiciary consisting of a single, regular court, the Federal Tribunal, in Lausanne and special military and administrative courts. The Federal Insurance Tribunal is an independent division for social security questions (the seat of the latter is in Lucerne, but it is part of the Federal Tribunal).

The constitution provides for separation of the three branches of government.

The Federal Assembly is the primary seat of power, although in practice the executive branch has been increasing its power at the expense of the legislative branch. The Assembly has two houses -- the Council of States and the National Council. These two houses have equal powers in all respects, including the right to introduce legislation. Legislation cannot be vetoed by the executive nor reviewed for constitutionality by the judiciary, but all laws (except the budget) can be reviewed by referendum before taking effect.

The 46 members of the Council of States (two from each canton and one from each half canton) are directly elected in each canton. The 200 members of the National Council are elected directly under a system of proportional representation. Members of both houses serve for 4 years.

The Assembly meets quarterly in 3-week sessions and can be legally dissolved only after a popular vote calling for a complete constitutional revision.

All citizens 18 or older have the right to vote and run for office in national, cantonal, and communal elections unless individually disqualified by the relevant legislature.

A strong emphasis on the initiative and the referendum arises out of the traditional Swiss belief that the will of the people is the final national authority. As a limitation on the power of referendum, the Assembly can declare an act to be too urgent to allow time for popular consideration, but this is rare.

The top executive body is the Federal Council. Although the constitution provides that the Assembly chooses and supervises the Council, the latter gradually has assumed a preeminent role in directing the legislative process as well as executing federal laws.

The Council has seven Councilors elected for 4-year terms by the Assembly. Each year, the Assembly elects from among the seven a president and vice president, following the principle of seniority. The member who is vice president one year traditionally is elected president the next. Under an arrangement called the "magic formula," which has been in effect since 1959, two Councilors are elected from each of three major parties (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Free Democrats) and one from a smaller fourth party (Swiss People's). Councilors constitutionally act collectively in all matters, not as individual ministers or as representatives of the parties to which they belong.

Each Councilor heads one of seven federal departments and is responsible for preparing legislation pertaining to matters under its jurisdiction. The president, who remains responsible for the department he heads, has limited prerogatives and is first among equals.

The administration of justice is primarily a cantonal function. The only regular federal court, the Federal Tribunal, is limited in its jurisdiction. Its principal function is to hear appeals of civil and criminal cases. It has authority to review cantonal court decisions involving federal law and certain administrative rulings of federal departments, but it has no power to review legislation for constitutionality. The Tribunal's 30 members are elected for 6-year terms by the Assembly.

The cantons regulate local government. The basic unit of local government, which administers a village, town, or city, is the commune or municipality. Citizenship is derived from membership in a commune and can be conferred on non-Swiss by a commune. Cantons are subordinate to federal authority but keep autonomy in implementing federal law.


Although it has a diverse society, Switzerland has a stable government. Most voters support the government in the armed neutrality underlying its foreign and defense policies. Domestic policy poses no major problems, but the changing international environment has generated a significant re-examination of Swiss policy in key areas such as defense, neutrality, and immigration. Quadrennial national elections typically result in few major changes in party representation.

The constitution limits federal influence in the formulation of domestic policy and emphasizes the roles of private enterprise and cantonal government. However, the Confederation has been compelled to enlarge its policymaking powers in recent years to cope with national problems such as education, agriculture, energy, environment, organized crime, and narcotics.

Principal Government Officials

Federal Departments

Foreign Affairs -- Flavio Cotti (President for 1998)
Interior -- Ruth Dreifuss (President for 1999)
Finance -- Kasper Villiger
Defense -- Adolf Ogi
Ambassador to the United States -- Alfred Defago
(since April 1997)

Switzerland maintains an embassy in the United States at 2900 Cathedral Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008. Consulates General are in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Swiss national tourist offices are in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.


Originally inhabited by the Helvetians, or Helvetic Celts, the territory comprising modern Switzerland was conquered by Julius Caesar during the Gallic wars and made part of the Roman Empire. It remained a Roman province until the 4th century AD. Under Roman influence, the population reached a high level of civilization and enjoyed a flourishing commerce. Important cities, such as Geneva, Basel, and Zurich, were linked by military roads that also served as trade arteries between Rome and the northern tribes.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, Switzerland was invaded by Germanic tribes from the north and west. Some tribes, such as the Alemanni in central and northeastern Switzerland, and the Burgundians, who ruled western Switzerland, settled there. In 800, the country became part of Charlemagne's empire. It later passed under the dominion of the German emperors in the form of small ecclesiastic and temporal holdings subject to imperial sovereignty.

In 1291, representatives of the three forest cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed the Eternal Alliance. This united them in the struggle against "foreign" rule by the Hapsburgs, who then held the German imperial throne. At the battle of Morganten in 1315, the Swiss defeated the Hapsburg army and secured quasi-independence within the German Empire as the Swiss Confederation.

Under the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, European countries recognized Switzerland's independence from the Holy Roman Empire and its neutrality.

In 1798, armies of the French Revolution conquered Switzerland. The Treaty of Vienna and the Second Peace of Paris in 1815 re-established Swiss independence, and the powers participating in the Congress of Vienna agreed to recognize Swiss permanent neutrality.

Switzerland adopted a federal constitution in 1848, modeled in part on the U.S. Constitution. The Swiss amended their constitution extensively in 1874, establishing federal responsibility for defense, trade, and legal matters. Since then, continued political, economic, and social improvement has characterized Swiss history. The Swiss did not participate in either world war.

Here is a concise History of Switzerland. SOURCE


Some Celtic tribes occupied the territory of Switzerland before Roman colonization. The most important of these were the Helvetians, who settled in the Alps and the Jura mountains. The area was strategically important for Rome, with access to its dominions. Consequently, the Alpine valleys north of the Italian peninsula were conquered by Julius Caesar in 58 BC.

The Germanic tribes north of the Rhine invaded from the year 260 onwards. Between the 5th and 6th centuries the Germans established permanent settlements in the region east of the Aar river, together with Burgundian and Frankish groups. By 639 they had founded the kingdoms that would later become France.

The Christian survivors from Roman times had completely disappeared when St Columba and St Gall arrived in the 6th century. These missionaries created the dioceses of Chur, Sion, Basel, Constance and Lausanne. Monasteries were built, in Saint-Gall, Zurich, Disentis and Romainmotier.

Until the partition of Verdun in 843 these territories belonged to Charlemagne’s empire. Thereafter, the region west of the Aar was allotted to Lothair, while the east remained in the hands of Louis the German. The French and German influence formed a peculiar blend with the Latin tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Around 1033, for dynastic and political reasons, Helvetia became a part of the Holy Roman Empire, remaining so during the Middle Ages. In the 11th century the region was divided after the re-establishment of imperial authority and its disputes with the Papacy. Dukes, counts, and bishops exerted virtually autonomous local power.

Walled cities served as administrative and commercial centers, and protected powerful families seeking to expand their possessions through wars against other lords and kingdoms. In the 13th century, Rudolf IV of Hapsburg conquered most of the territories of Kyburg and became the most powerful lord in the region.

In the cities independence gradually developed in opposition to the nobility. Meanwhile the peasant communities in the most inaccessible valleys practiced economic cooperation to survive the harsh conditions, rejecting forced labor and payment of tithes in cash or kind.

In 1231 the canton (area) of Uri fell under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire, and in 1240 Schwyz and Nidwald were subjected to Emperor Frederick II, although retaining the right to choose their own magistrates.

The Hapsburg overlords questioned this freedom and uncertainty remained until Rudolf of Hapsburg was crowned king of Germany in 1273. He exercised his imperial rights in Uri and inherited rights over Schwytz and Unterwald until his death in 1291. These regions thereafter constituted the Perpetual League.

As with other circumstantial alliances among the regions, the Perpetual League constituted an agreement for dispute arbitration, putting law above armed strength. The honorary magistrates had to be residents of those cantons.

The league of the Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwald cantons was joined by the city of Zurich, constituting the first historic antecedent of the Swiss Confederation. This confederation was consolidated with the victory of Margarten in 1315, defeating an army of knights sent to impose imperial law in the region by the Hapsburgs.

The Confederation was supported by new alliances. In 1302 the League signed a pact with the city of Luzern, previously dependent on Vienna. In 1315 Zurich reaffirmed its union and in 1353 it was joined by Bern. The Glarus and Zug cantons joined later, forming the core of an independent state within the Germanic Empire.

During the second half of the 14th century, the rural oligarchy was defeated, and their lands and laws given over to city councils. This democratic rural movement gave birth to the «Landesgemeinde», a sovereign assembly of canton inhabitants and a similar movement was led by the city guilds.

The Confederation soon launched into territorial conquest. During the 15th century the union grew to 13 cantons, it made alliances with other states, and the institution of government known as the Diet was formed where each canton was represented by two seats and one vote.

In 1516, after the defeat of the Helvetians, the King of France forced a peace treaty with the cantons. In 1521 an alliance gave France the right to recruit Swiss soldiers. Only Zurich refused to sign this alliance, maintaining military and economic links with the Old Confederation until its end in 1798.

The Reformation came to Switzerland with Huldrych Zwingli, a priest who preached against the mercenary service and the corruption and power of the clergy. Popular support for Zwingli strengthened the urban bourgeoisie. The Reformation became more radical in rural areas where harsh repression re-established the domination of cities over peasants.

Zwingli’s attempt to alter the federal alliance to benefit the reformed cities was frustrated by the military victory of the Catholic rural areas. The second national peace of Kappel, signed in 1531 gave the Catholic minority advantages over the Protestant majority.

The areas where both religions coexisted were subject to constant tension, but cooperation was required to preserve the union of the federation. In Catholic regions agriculture prevailed, while in Protestant areas trade and industry flourished, aided by French, Italian and Dutch refugees.

Popular consultation disappeared in the 17th century. The power of the cities caused uprisings, such as the great peasant revolt of 1653, which were harshly repressed. Three years later when a further war ensued the prerogatives of the Catholic cantons were re-established.

During the European conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries Switzerland remained neutral because of its religious division and its mercenary armies. Neutrality became a condition for the Confederation’s existence. The policy of armed neutrality, which still holds, was first formulated by the Diet in 1674.

In 1712 the Protestant victory in the second battle of Villmergen ended religious struggles, ensuring the hegemony of cities which were undergoing industrial expansion. Switzerland became the most industrialized country in Europe. Industry was based on labor at home, completely transforming work in the countryside.

Throughout the 18th century, a series of popular revolts against the urban oligarchy called for the reform of the Swiss Constitution. In March 1798, the Old Confederation fell under pressure from Napoleon’s army. The Helvetic Republic was proclaimed «whole and indivisible» with sovereignty for the people.

Between the unitary Republic and the 1848 Federal Constitution, Switzerland was shaken by coups, popular revolts, and civil wars. The new federal pact marked a final victory for liberalism in the country. Two legislative bodies were established guaranteeing the rights of the small Catholic cantons.

A state monopoly was created for custom duties and coin minting, while weights and measures were standardized, so satisfying the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie’s economic requirements. The 1848 Constitution thus removed the obstacles to capitalist expansion.

Nepotism and the concentration of capital benefited only the few and fuelled growing opposition to the institutional system. The 1874 Constitution partially addressed these issues, and introduced the mechanism of referendum as an element of direct democracy.

Expansion of the home labor system delayed organization of the Swiss workers’ movement in relation to the country’s industrialization. The Swiss Workers’ Federation, created in 1873 had only 3,000 members, and the Swiss Workers’ Union, which replaced it in 1880, only exceeded this figure ten years later.

The first achievement of the workers’ movement was factory legislation, passed by parliament in 1877. The working day was limited to 11 hours with improved working conditions. In 1888 the Socialist Party was formed to give workers a political voice.

In 1910, 15 per cent of the workers in Switzerland were foreign. Many were anarchists and socialists who had suffered persecution in their own countries and they consequently encouraged radical positions in the workers’ movement. The Swiss Workers’ Union took up a platform of «proletarian class struggle», and the Socialist Party was inspired by the Second International’s Marxism.

World War I brought great internal tensions to Switzerland, especially between the French- and German-speaking regions. Under the leadership of Ulrich Wile, the Swiss army cooperated with Germany. Tension only decreased after the French victory, when Switzerland formally approached the allies and became a member of the League of Nations.

Clashes between trade unions and employers echoed the tensions between the different language regions. The 1918 general strike, although lifted three days later under pressure from the armed forces, led the bourgeoisie to form an anti-Socialist bloc. That year proportional representation was introduced.

The elections in 1919 marked the end of the liberal hegemony, in place since 1848. The Socialists obtained 20 per cent of the vote, leading liberals to ally with the peasants who had 14 per cent, while the conservatives became the second power in the Federal Council.

These changes produced noticeable consequences during the following years. The 48-hour week was included in factory legislation, while in 1925 an article on old-age pensions was added to the constitution. Assistance to the unemployed improved and collective work contracts became more common.

In the years before World War II, the Socialist Party was threatened by foreign and national fascism, and a sector split to form the Communist Party. The socialists were forced to include formal recognition of the state and national defence in their policies.

During World War II, European powers recognized Swiss armed neutrality, but the country still suffered strong pressure from Nazi Germany. Throughout the war Switzerland maintained a delicate balance between accepting Hitler’s advances and defending its independence; a strategy that kept them out of the conflict.

After the war, the West resented Switzerland’s relations with Germany, and the USSR refused to re-establish diplomatic relations, broken off 1918. However, the country’s financial power paved the way for its return to the international community. During the Cold War, Switzerland sided with the West but did not join the UN, in order to preserve its neutrality.

The Swiss economy expanded greatly during the postwar period. The chemical, food, and machinery exporting industries became great transnational corporations. In 1973 Switzerland was placed fourth in direct foreign capital investments, after the US, France, and Britain.

Switzerland’s main transnational corporation, the food and babymilk manufacturer Nestlé AG, had 196,940 workers worldwide and sales worth $29.36 billion in 1989.

The Swiss economic expansion attracted workers from Italy, Spain and other southern European countries. Between 1945 and 1974 the number of immigrants rose from 5 to 17 per cent. Several referenda called for an end to immigration forced thousands of people back to their countries.

Due to its political neutrality, Switzerland did not join the European Economic Community in 1957. However, it has been a member of EFTA (European Free Trade Association) since 1960.

In 1959, after 10 years of voluntary absence, the socialists joined the Federal Council with two representatives. The Executive consisted of two Radicals, two Christian Democrats, two Socialists, and a peasants’ representative. This meant that 80 per cent of the electorate was represented in government.

Women gained the right to vote in 1971, but some cantons retained male-only suffrage until 1985. In 1984, the first woman minister was elected when Elisabeth Kopp was made minister for justice and police.

Switzerland is governed by consensus, but the population has increasingly abstained in referendums. In the 1979 elections participation was lower than 50 per cent for the first time.

During the 1980s new opposition groups appeared, some feminist, some opposed to nuclear plants, and some youth groups fighting against the consumer society. A referendum in 1981 added a clause on equal rights to the Constitution.

According to 1981 statistics, male students outnumbered female by three to one in Switzerland. Women accounted for no more than 32.5 per cent of the economically active population, while men made up 63.9 per cent.

Since 1986 environmental problems have become more serious and the Government has taken measures to curb pollution, especially acid rain and pollution of the Rhine. In 1987 France, Germany and the Netherlands received compensation for damage caused by an accident in the Swiss chemical industry.

Another serious problem is the damage to the Alpine ecosystem. The rapid growth of cities in this area, and the increased transit of heavy trucks, have contributed to regional desertification. As a direct result, so-called natural disasters, such as floods and avalanches of rock, mud and snow have increased; events that would be less likely to occur if the area still had the protection offered by its natural tree coverage.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster had greatly concerned the Swiss population and in 1989, a series of demonstrations took place. A referendum proposed the gradual elimination of existing nuclear power plants, and the Federal Parliament cancelled the construction of a sixth nuclear station.

Increasing social problems and the presence of immigrants have given encouragement to the Swiss extreme right. Although being small, the Swiss Democratic Party and the Party of Drivers xenophobic and opposed to social security policies, have both gained support since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Switzerland’s integration into the IMF was approved by a plebiscite in May 1992. In June 1993, Parliament approved the incorporation of Swiss troops into the United Nations peacekeeping forces. This represented an important change in Switzerland’s traditional policy of neutrality. However, most of the Swiss voted against this proposal in a referendum in 1994.

One of the main obstacles to Swiss integration into the European Union was the objection to the free movement of workers between countries. A referendum in the same year approved an anti-racism law which punished discrimination while another granted the police powers to use greater «severity» against illegal immigrants committing crimes within the country. This measure was widely criticized and considered a violation of the Swiss Constitution and the European Human Rights Convention.

In the general elections of October 22 1995, the Social Democrats took 54 seats, the Radicals 45, the Christian Democrats, 34, the Swiss People’s Party 29 and the Greens 9.

In July 1997, Swiss banks - sued internationally by individuals - released a list of names of account-holders with funds untouched since World War II. Most of these were Jews later exterminated by the Nazis. The World Jewish Congress, the main plaintiff, said this presentation was only a symbolic gesture, as the banks had taken advantage of the funds for over 50 years.

In September 1997, 50.8 per cent of voters in a referendum rejected the reduction in unemployment benefit proposed by the Government. Observers claimed this could complicate the planned economic austerity measures.

The Government suspended the military intelligence chief on charges of having masterminded the operation leading to a multimillion dollar embezzlement by a former intelligence officer with the purpose of creating an underground army. The Minister of Defense, Adolf Ogi, who was in charge of the investigation, became a prominent political figure.

The Democratic Union won the October elections under Ogi’s leadership. He became President on January 2000.

A 1998 government report established that anti-Semitism had flared up in Switzerland due to the controversy over its relations with Nazi Germany and also over the question of what Swiss banks had done with accounts belonging to Holocaust victims. A study sponsored by the US revealed in January 2000 that 16 per cent of the Swiss population had anti-Semitic feelings, and that this had increased during the 1990s.



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