Federal Palace

Everything you need to know about the Swiss presidency

If you have never lived in Switzerland, you may not be familiar with the intricacies of our political system. Our system, which is federal in nature and based on semi-direct democracy, is often described as unique. Switzerland is a federal state with three political levels: the federal government, the 26 cantons and almost 2,000 communes across the country.

One of the lesser-known aspects of our system is the office of the President of the Swiss Confederation. Do you know the name of the current President of the Swiss Confederation? What do they actually do? How long do they serve? Find out the answers to these questions and more!

Swiss flag flying

1. Who elects the President of the Swiss Confederation?

The Federal Assembly, comprising the 200 elected members of the National Council (the 'lower chamber', representing the people) and the 46 elected members of the Council of States (the 'upper chamber', representing the cantons), elects the President of the Swiss Confederation from among the seven members of the Federal Council. This election takes place in December each year during the winter parliamentary session. This annual rotation is the reason people outside Switzerland – and sometimes even within Switzerland – often do not know the name of the current President.

2. How is the election conducted? 

In the first instance, the president of the Federal Assembly, who is also president of the National Council, communicates the name of the federal councillor nominated by the candidate's parliamentary group for the post of President. The elected officials then write the name of their chosen candidate on a ballot. After the votes have been counted, the president of the Federal Assembly announces the result. 

 

3. So don't the people elect the President?

No! Unlike many other countries, the President is not directly elected by the citizens. The members of the Federal Assembly are elected by the people. It is they who elect the members of the Federal Council and also the President.

4. Is the order of rotation determined once the federal councillors are elected? 

The presidency of the Federal Council rotates on an annual basis, subject to election by the Federal Assembly.

In the year before assuming the presidency, the vice-president of the Federal Council acts as deputy to the incumbent President, and is responsible for discharging the President's duties in the event that the President is prevented from doing so. 

5. For how long does the President of the Confederation remain in post?

The presidency of the Confederation is for one year. 

6. So does that mean the President is the head of the Federal Council? 

No. Despite presiding over the meetings of the Federal Council and having the casting vote in the event of a split vote, the President remains the equal of the other six federal councillors. The President acts as first among equals: the President leads the government without having any specific additional powers.
It is also not true to say that the President of the Swiss Confederation is the head of state, as this is the responsibility of the entire Federal Council.

Official photo of the Federal Council in 2021
Official photo of the Federal Council in 2021 © Swiss Federal Chancellery

 

7. So what is the role of the President? 

The President's primary function is to conduct the meetings of the Federal Council and to act as arbiter if necessary. The President also has additional representative tasks, both in Switzerland and abroad. In parallel, the President remains the head of the federal department for which they are responsible. 

In an emergency, the President is empowered to take provisional measures, i.e. temporary decisions to resolve a specific situation. If the Federal Council cannot be convened for any reason, the President is also entitled to take decisions on its behalf.

8. Can the President of the Swiss Confederation serve more than one term?

Yes, a federal councillor can be elected several times to this position, depending on the length of their term on the Federal Council.
Among the current members, Ueli Maurer and Simonetta Sommaruga have already held the position twice. 

9. How many women have been elected President?

Women have served eight terms as President. The first of these was Federal Councillor Ruth Dreifuss from Geneva, who was President in 1999. 

Official photo of the Federal Council in 1999
Official photo of the Federal Council in 1999 © Swiss Federal Chancellery

 

10. Who was the first ever President of the Swiss Confederation? 

Jonas Furrer from Zurich assumed this role for the first time in 1848.
He was a member of the Federal Council for almost 14 years and served four terms as President. He died in 1861, while he was still a member of the Federal Council.

 

Jonas Furrer, first President of Switzerland
Jonas Furrer, first President of Switzerland © Swiss Federal Chancellery

11. Who will be President of the Swiss Confederation in 2022?

Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, who has been head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs since 2017, will assume the presidency of the Swiss Confederation in 2022, succeeding Guy Parmelin.