Switzerland’s New Government Has Taken up Work

© matthieu gafsou

With the beginning of the year, some roles in Switzerland’s government—the Bundesrat (Federal Council)—have been switched around. Some of these changes are a regular occurrence, others result from the resignation of two Federal Councilors last year and the resulting election of two new members.

The Bundesrat has seven members in total, one of whom is also elected for a 1-year term of President. Interestingly, the Bundesrat in Switzerland does not just include members of the ruling party(ies), as is the case in many countries. Instead, they follow a form of power-sharing called consociationalism, meaning that all major parties are represented in the Federal Council. With few exceptions, this has meant that the three largest parties in parliament each have two Councilors, and the fourth-largest party has one Councilor (this was known as the “magic formula”). In addition, the selection of Councilors strives to represent the various geographic and language regions .

The Current Bundesrat

The seven members of the Bundesrat each head one department; however, all major decisions are made jointly. They are supported by the Bundeskanzler (Federal Chancellor) Walter Thurnherr, who serves as the council’s chief of staff. For 2023, the seven members of the Bundesrat and their responsibilities are as follows:

The official 2023 Bundesrat photo at the top shows, from left to right, Walter Thurnherr, Albert Rösti, Ignazio Cassis, Viola Amherd, Alain Berset, Guy Parmelin, Karin Keller-Sutter, and Elisabeth Baume-Schneider.

The President

In contrast to other countries, the President of the Confederation is not the head of state—the head of state is, in fact, the entire Bundesrat. Thus, the President is only considered “primus inter pares” (first among equals) during their 1-year term. They chair the Bundesrat meetings, mediate disputes, and take on a few representational duties, but that’s as far as it goes. They also continue to run their allocated department.

The election of the Bundespräsident by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Assembly, the joint body of the upper and lower houses of parliament), which occurs every year at the beginning of December, is more or less a formality that follows an unofficial rotation system. Thus, the Federal Councilor who has been on the Bundesrat the longest without having been President becomes the new President. Accordingly, in theory, every Councilor will get a turn at least once every 7 years, with specifics depending on how many new Councilors are elected each year; long-serving Councilors therefore will get several terms. For example, the current President Alain Berset already served as President in 2018.