Switzerland is best described by conveying an understanding of its geography, political, economic, cultural and social environments. The geography of the country has had a significant impact on its way of life. Switzerland is bordered by Germany in the north, Austria and the Principality of Liechtenstein in the east, Italy in the south and France in the west. This represents many significant European cultures converging on Switzerland – the German speaking region, the French and the Italian. Two thirds of the Swiss population lives in the Plateau, between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance, in 30 percent of the country’s surface area. There are 450 people to every 1 km2 (1,166 per square mile). This makes the country one of the most densely populated regions of Europe and a promising prospect for marketing a product. The country that we know today took its final shape only in 1848. Before that time, we cannot really speak of “Swiss history,” but rather the history of its various parts, which only gradually came together.
Switzerland is a nation shaped by the resolve of its citizens: it is not an ethnic, linguistic or religious entity. Since 1848, it has been a federal state – one of 23 in the world and the second oldest after the United States of America. Like the U.S., Switzerland values the idea of federalism and sovereignty, which has ensured its historical survival.
The main political parties in Switzerland are the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), Social-democratic Party (SP), Radical Democratic Party (FDP), Christian Democratic Party (CVP) and the Green Party. The Federal Constitution is the legal foundation of the Confederation. It contains the most important rules for the smooth functioning of the state. It guarantees the basic rights of the people and the participation of the public. It distributes the tasks between the Confederation and the cantons and defines the responsibilities of the authorities.
Switzerland has a federal structure with three different political levels:
the local authorities
The Federation is the Swiss designation of the State (the term Confederation is also frequently used). The Federation has authority in all areas in which it is empowered by the Federal Constitution – for example, foreign and security policy, customs and monetary policy, legislation that is valid through the country and in other areas that are in the common interest of all Swiss citizens. Tasks which do not expressly fall within the province of the Federation are handled at the next lower level, i.e. by the cantons.
The head of state is the federal president; the post is purely ceremonial and rotates annually among the members of the Federal Council.
A Federal Council (the executive authority) of seven members elected individually for a four-year term by, but not necessarily from, the two houses of parliament in joint session. After the formation of the coalition between the four major political parties in 1959 (the so-called magic formula), the Federal Council was made up of two members each from the Social-democratic Party, the Radical Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Party, as well as one member of the Swiss People’s Party. Following the federal election on October 19th 2003, the distribution of seats in the Federal Council changed, with the Swiss People’s Party increasing its number of seats to two, leaving the Christian Democratic Party with one seat.
Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons. There are German-speaking and French-speaking cantons, one Italian-speaking canton and cantons in which both German and French are spoken. In one canton (Graubnden) German, Italian and Rhaeto-Romanic (Rumantsch) are spoken.
Each canton has its own constitution, its government, its parliament, its courts and its laws, though they must, of course, be compatible with those of the Confederation. The cantons enjoy a great deal of administrative autonomy and freedom of decision-making. They have independent control over their education systems and social services, and each has its own police force. Each canton also sets its own level of taxation.
Each of the 26 cantons and half-cantons has a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and a government the organization of which varies from canton to canton. In two cantons the principle of universal sovereignty is exercised directly through assemblies of all voters. The cantons are sovereign