Switzerland (official name the Swiss Confederation) is a federal republic, composed of 26 cantons. Federal authorities are based in Bern. The largest cities and economic centres are Zürich, Geneva, Basel and Lausanne.
Federalism, which was introduced in Switzerland in 1848, makes it possible to enjoy diversity within a single entity. For Switzerland, with its four national languages and its highly diverse geographical landscapes, federalism makes an important contribution to social cohesion. The Federal Constitution lays down the powers of the Confederation and the cantons. The cantons, in turn, define the powers of their communes.
The Swiss Parliament consists of two houses: the Council of States which has 46 representatives (two from each canton and one from each half-canton) who are elected under a system determined by each canton. The 246 members of parliament are elected by the people every four years. They represent the interests of the various language communities, political parties, world views and regions in Switzerland. Members of both houses serve for 4 years and only serve as members of parliament part-time (so-called Milizsystem or citizen legislature). When both houses are in joint session, they are known collectively as the Federal Assembly. Through referendums, citizens may challenge any law passed by parliament and, through initiatives, introduce amendments to the federal constitution, thus making Switzerland a direct democracy.
The Swiss government comprises the seven members of the Federal Council. The president is elected for a one-year term of office and is regarded during that time as ‘Primus inter pares’, or first among equals.