The origins of Switzerland can be traced back to 1291 when the cantons of Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Uri signed a defensive alliance to oppose Austrian domination. Other cantons joined the alliance and, by the late fifteenth century, the coalition was able to achieve virtual independence within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following a period of occupation by France, the place of the Swiss federation in post-Napoleonic Europe was affirmed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In that same year, the federation was joined by the cantons of Geneva and Valais, and was declared to be perpetually neutral. After a brief civil war in 1847, the federation was replaced by a more unified confederation that became a federal state in 1874.
Reflecting the country's variegated geography as well as its diverse cultural and historical roots, Swiss politics is firmly anchored at the local level. The 26 cantons and 3,000 smaller communes exercise a large degree of autonomy over many areas including policing, school administration, health systems, and tax collection. The 1999 Constitution specifically grants all power to the cantons not granted to the federal government, such as defense, social insurance, and foreign affairs.
The Federal Assembly is comprised of the 46-member Council of States and a 200-member National Council. Two members are drawn from every canton for the Council of States. Membership in the National Council is based on a system of proportional representation, the number of seats gained by a political party being directly proportional to the number of votes it receives. Elections for all legislative seats take place every four years.
The Federal Council is a seven-member executive body, elected by the Federal Assembly. Each member of the Council is of equal rank and holds a cabinet portfolio assigned by common agreement with his or her colleagues. The Swiss refer to this arrangement as the "magic formula" and it has worked well for decades. The formula provides that two members of the Council come from each of the three large, centrist parties: the Social Democrats (Sozialdemokratische Partei der Schweiz—SPS); the Free Democrats (Freisinnig-Demokratische Partei der Schweiz—FDP); and the Christian Democrats (Christichdemokratische Volkspartei der Schweiz—CVP); and one seat from the rightist People's Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei—SVP). This emphasis on collegiality is carried over into the Council's decisions on legislative matters. Its deliberations are held in secret and its decisions are generally presented to the public as unanimous. On those occasions when consensus has not been arrived at, the majority prevails, though the votes of each member are not released. Each December the Federal Assembly elects a president and vice president from among the councilors, though in practice the previous year's vice president is usually moved to the higher position. Swiss presidents serve for one year at a time and are also cabinet ministers in their own right. The role of a Swiss president is unique among parliamentary democracies. He or she is both head of state and government, yet wields very little power. Throughout the twentieth century, the power of the Federal Council relative to that of the Assembly has steadily increased. As of 2002, the
great majority of legislation was initiated by the Council, after which it was submitted to the Assembly for review and alteration. The final decision on a policy rests with the general public, in the form of a referendum.
The third component of the confederation is the Federal Supreme Court, which is empowered to decide constitutional law issues, primarily cantonal and communal law. Federal statutes passed by the Assembly are not subject to judicial review. The rationale behind this limitation lies with the right of referendum, which allows the public to submit any federal statute to a popular vote, with the exception of the budget. Thus, it is the general public, and not the judiciary, that decides on the constitutionality of a federal statue.
The right of referendum is an important element in Swiss politics. Since the practice was begun in 1848, Switzerland has held over 450 nationwide referendums, more than all other countries combined. Any bill approved by the Federal Assembly can be challenged in a national referendum. For this to occur, a petition signed by 50,000 citizens or eight cantons must be presented within eight days of the bill's passage. The outcome of the referendum is then decided by popular majority vote. Swiss voters can also exercise direct democracy by means of the constitutional initiative. Any seven Swiss voters can begin this process by submitting a request for an initiative and a description of the desired changes in the constitution. They then have 18 months to collect the 100,000 signatures necessary to force the initiative to a referendum. Such proposed changes to the constitution must be accepted by both a majority of the voters and by more than half the cantons. This so called "double majority" applies also to any constitutional changes proposed by the Council or Assembly, as well as to Swiss membership in supranational bodies.
The so-called "magic formula" that determines the political composition of Switzerland's Federal Council was called into question by the 1999 national elections, in which the Swiss People's Party (SVP), traditionally the smallest of the four leading parties, and the most right-leaning, won a plurality of the votes. The SVP had since 1959 been granted only one seat on the Federal Council, but now that it held the most seats in the proportionally elected National Council, it demanded greater representation in the Council. After considerable debate no consensus was reached, and the traditional arrangement was left in place, much to the dismay of the SVP, which only agreed to forgo changes on the understanding that if it retained its majority in the elections of October 2003, a new "magic formula" would have to be devised. Based on the SVP's success in local elections, it appeared as of early 2003 that the party had continued to gain ground.
In addition to potential changes in party representation, other changes to the Federal Council seemed likely in the spring of 2003 as legislators debated increasing the number of councilors from seven and nine and expanding the rotating residential term from one to two years, both measures designed to lighten the workload of individual councilors.