The Swiss Confederation is a federal union governed, until 2000, under the constitution of 1874, which vested supreme authority in the Federal Assembly, the legislative body, and executive power in the Federal Council. On 1 January 2000, a new federal constitution entered into force, replacing the 1874 constitution. The new constitution formally separates and codifies four pillars of Swiss constitutional law: democracy; the rule of law; social welfare; and federalism. Fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, which had not been explicitly mentioned in the 1874 constitution, now received their formal expression.
The Federal Assembly consists of two chambers: the National Council ( Nationalrat ) of 200 members, elected by direct ballot for four-year terms by citizens 18 years of age or older, and the Council of States ( Ständerat ) of 46 members, two appointed by each of the 20 cantons and one from each of the six half-cantons, and paid by the cantons; deputies are elected according to the laws of the cantons. Legislation must be approved by both houses.
The Federal Council of seven members is elected for four-year terms by joint session of the Federal Assembly. The president and vice president of the Federal Council and of the Confederation are elected by the assembly for one-year terms and cannot be reelected to the same office until after the expiration of another year. The seven members of the Federal Council, which has no veto power, are the respective heads of the main departments of the federal government. After the 1995 elections, the Federal Council, made up of the so-called "magic formula" coalition of the far largest political parties (which has remained largely unchanged since 1959), elected as president Economic Minister Jean-Pascal Delamuraz. The Federal Council meets in secret and tries to appear congenial at all times. The president in 2003 was Pascal Couchepin.
The cantons are sovereign in all matters not delegated to the federal government by the constitution and may force federal law to a plebiscite by the right of referendum. In addition, by popular initiative, 50,000 citizens may demand a direct popular vote on any legislation or regulation proposed by the federal government, and 100,000 citizens may demand a referendum on a constitutional revision. Any proposed amendments to the constitution must be submitted for public approval.
In 1971, Swiss women were granted the right to vote in federal elections. In November 1990, the Federal Court ruled in favor of female suffrage in the half-canton of Appenzell-Inner Rhoden, the last area with male-only suffrage.