Who Is the President of Switzerland?

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Over the years, I have asked my university students this question: Who is the president of Switzerland? No one has ever answered; it is a trick question. Unlike most countries, the Swiss Confederation does not have a president or prime minister acting as the head of state or government. In Switzerland, the executive power is not vested on a single individual, but in a seven-member Federal Council.

Each Council member has equal power, and each is operationally responsibly for one ministry. According to seniority, the seven members of the Council rotate yearly to serve as President of the Confederation, and chair Council meetings. It is this temporary assignment that we may figuratively call the President of Switzerland, although he or she is only a primus inter pares (first among equals).

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The President is principally responsible for representational duties but without any authority over the other Councilors, and must continue to run his or her department. Visiting heads of state are received by the full Council, and treaties are signed by all seven members. Interestingly, although Switzerland is classified as a semi-direct democracy (vs. a representative democracy), the Council members are not elected directly by the people, but by the houses of parliament in joint session.

There is much more to this unique Swiss system of government, but what I want to highlight is that Switzerland is a multicultural society with four distinctly different ethnic groups: German 65%, French, 18%, Italian 10%, Romansh 1%, and 6% made up of other various ethnicities. And although Germans make up a dominant majority, and could win all elections, the country manages a federal system that gives each ethnic group the power to administrate their local affairs with significant autonomy and in their language of choice.

Moreover, the Swiss have adopted a “magic 2-2-2-1 formula” of representation in the Federal Council with two seats going to the Christian Democrats, two to the Social Democrats, two to the Radicals, and one to the People’s Party. As eccentric as this system may seem to us, it works for the Swiss.

In the United States, during the Constitutional Convention and the ratification process, the Founding Fathers faced an entirely different set of issues in the design of a federal republic. At that time American society was ethnically homogeneous.  As John Jay noted in Federalist No. 2, America was “one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, the same language, professing the same religion.”

But, the problem of “factions,” as articulated by James Madison in Federalist No. 10 is loosely analogous to the ethnicity factions that make up the Swiss Confederation. Madison defined factions as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority…, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens…”

In both cases, the question was, and is, how to guard against factions, or groups of citizens, whose interest defy the rights of other citizens. To Madison, factions were inevitable due to the very nature of man. As he saw it, as long as we hold different opinions, and possess different financial resources, we will continue to form alliances with like-minded people.  Madison’s solution was not to seek to change the causes of factions, as egalitarians try to do, but to control their effect. Any efforts to remove the causes of faction, Madison argued, would destroy the liberty that is essential to political life.

The United States and Switzerland are enormously successful societies that rank near the top in most metrics of national performance such as civil liberties, government transparency, wealth, or quality of life.  And yet, each country approached the questions of governance and of factions in dramatically different ways. This raises a fundamental question as to what elements of their respective systems are to be credited for their success.

We may not know who the President of Switzerland is, and it may not matter. The presidency of a country is not a metaphysical undertaking.  In this tale of two systems, the common denominator is that both societies have sought to maximize individual freedoms. And that, is the source of their success.

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