Referendum debate: Could the Swiss Federal System be a blueprint for other countries?

Members of the Federal Council 2019 Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr, Federal Councillor Viola Amherd, Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga (Vice-President 2019 and President 2015), Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin, President Ueli Maurer (President 2013 and 2019), Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor Alain Berset (President 2018), Federal Councillor Karin Keller-Sutter /COURTESY
Members of the Federal Council 2019 Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr, Federal Councillor Viola Amherd, Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga (Vice-President 2019 and President 2015), Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin, President Ueli Maurer (President 2013 and 2019), Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor Alain Berset (President 2018), Federal Councillor Karin Keller-Sutter /COURTESY

There has been an ongoing political discussion about a constitutional referendum and its potential changes to the current political structure of the Republic of Kenya.

As Ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya, I must emphasize that it is entirely up to the Kenyan politicians and the Kenyan people, whether or not a referendum would be in the interest of the country and what it should be about. As a guest in Kenya, I will not engage in this debate, which belongs to Kenyans alone.

Nonetheless the debate does occasionally bring up interesting details that a foreigner like myself might help to clarify.

Here and there, reference has been made to the Swiss governmental system with its yearly rotating presidency; to Switzerland’s federalism; and to our political inclusivity.

Switzerland has a rotating presidency and normally the name of the President of the Swiss Confederation would be a mystery to most people outside Switzerland.

However, after last year’s successful visit by the President of the Swiss Confederation to Kenya, a good number of Kenyans will have read about and seen our dynamic President Alain Berset, who served in this position in 2018.


The name of this year’s Swiss President is Ueli Maurer – a veteran Swiss political leader who was President in 2013 for his first time, and is thus not a newcomer to the Swiss presidency.

Just to indicate further how unusual the Swiss political system is, I should explain that when the proposal for a presidential visit to Kenya was first mooted back in 2017, at that time the President of the Swiss Federation was a distinguished lady, Doris Leuthard, who had been a member of the Swiss Federal Council since 2006.

That comes to a total of three presidents over a period of just 18 months.

This kind of scenario in the political arena – with its apparently rapid turnover of presidents – would in most parts of the world, suggest great political turmoil in the country where this happened, and possibly carry a threat of potentially tragic consequences.

And yet in Switzerland, this is the long-established norm. Nobody, however, capable or charismatic, gets to be Federal President for more than one year at a time. And even then, while serving as President, he or she is but one of a collegial group guiding the affairs of the country.

How did Switzerland arrive at this unique political system? Here a little diversion into Swiss history is necessary.


In the 1830s and 1840s, politicians of what is today Switzerland hotly debated whether the country should be a federation of existing small Cantons (counties) or a centralised state.

What had started as a heated debate, unfortunately turned into a civil war. Liberals and Conservatives, Protestants and Catholics fought against each other. Luckily for my country, it was a short war between brothers, and so post-war reconciliation was quite rapidly achieved.

The Liberals and Protestants won the war; the Conservatives and Catholics lost. Nevertheless, the Liberals — mindful of the importance of reconciliation — were looking for a model abroad to learn from.

It is important to note here that the challenge Switzerland faced is one that continues to trouble many nations all over the world in the 21st Century: How to unite diverse multi-lingual and multi-cultural communities and bring them together into one cohesive and peaceful nation.

Or, as my friends in the NGO sector would say, “Creating inclusivity within diversity”.

In addressing this challenge, the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848 introduced a federal system guaranteeing the Cantons (counties) large autonomy and decision-making power — a kind of devolved system like in today’s Kenya.

That was important for the Catholics because it meant they were given the opportunity to continue to rule at least their own Cantons. In other words, the founding fathers made an effort to ensure they did not create a liberal regime which might be perceived to work against the Catholics.


The Swiss federal institutions were based on the blueprint of the successful American Republic with a House of Representatives and a Senate. However, critically and fundamentally, in contrast to the US Constitution, the Swiss founding fathers established a weak Presidency.

Why did Switzerland make this radical – and in some ways, unprecedented – decision to opt for a weak presidency?

Well it was because, while the Swiss founding fathers were looking to the US for their new institutional and governmental set-up, they adapted certain institutions to the Swiss historic reality and to the political culture of the newly born Swiss Confederation. The US, coming out of an independence war, felt clearly the need for a strong Presidency.

On the other hand, Switzerland, just coming out of a civil war in 1847, was looking for domestic peace. The Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848 established a collegial government (Federal Council) with seven members, who together would decide, administer and govern.

Moreover, right from the beginning, the Swiss Parliament elected Federal Councillors who represented the totality of the Swiss population. The Federal Council almost inevitably had at least one French, German and Italian speaking member of government – and from time to time one from the tiny Romansch speaking minority.

Protestants and Catholics — who had fought each other in 1847 — were elected in the Federal Council and sat in the same room discussing governmental matters. The Federal Council was first fully under the control of the Liberal Party. But after 1891, politicians from other parties (first the Conservatives, then the Socialists, and the Swiss Farmers Party) were elected turning the Federal Council into a multi-party executive.

In the 1990s, a representative of the Jewish Community was elected as Federal Councillor. Finally, women entered the political stage and became members of government. Today, three out of seven Federal Councillors are women.


What are the lessons that we may take from Switzerland’s history and its governmental system?

First, and above all, we must appreciate there is no possibility of “copy-pasting” a successful political system. And most definitely not in the precise details of the governing structure.

Switzerland copied certain institutions from the US – but adopted them to the Swiss reality.

Second, the diversity of Switzerland (in terms of languages, religion, regions, gender, and party affiliation) is fully reflected in the Swiss government. Every Swiss citizen feels represented by the Federal Council.

Inclusivity has been one of the cornerstones of Switzerland’s political success.

Ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya