Switzerland’s federal history can be traced back to August 1291, when three cantons created a defense union combined with a system of arbitration for conflict management. After the invasion of Switzerland by Napoleon in 1798 the French attempted to create a centralized Swiss state. This was unsuccessful, however, and the 1803 Act of Mediation partially restored the sovereignty of the cantons, created a number of new cantons, and effectively introduced a loose federal system. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Switzerland determined that it would operate as a loose confederation. The Sonderbund War of 1847, a civil war in which seven primarily Catholic cantons created an alliance to protect their interests against a centralization of power, led in 1848 to the enacting of the (current) federal constitution. This constitution established Switzerland as a federal republic, delineated the responsibilities of the cantons and the Confederation, and established the federal authorities of government.
There have been a total of two revisions of the constitution, one in 1874 and one in 1999 (which came into force on 1 January 2000). The latter formulated the existing constitutional norms in modern language, and introduced additional content, particularly in relation to cooperative federalism. However, the overall design of the constitution remained unchanged throughout these revisions. The federal constitution of Switzerland has provided the basis for the peaceful cohabitation of different cultural, linguistic, and religious groups.
The Swiss federal system consists of three levels of governance. Authority is shared between the Confederation (central state), the 26 cantons (the federal states), and the 2,352 communes. Each of these three levels has legislative and executive powers. In addition, the Confederation and the cantons have judicial powers.
The Confederation’s authority is restricted to the powers expressly conferred to it by the Federal Constitution. All other areas, such as education and health care, are the responsibility of the cantons which enjoy considerable autonomy. Some of the responsibilities of the communes are expressly assigned to them by the Confederation, or by the canton of which they are a part. However, communes can also legislate when cantonal law does not specifically refer to issues that affect them directly.
Switzerland’s direct democracy means that all proposed amendments to the constitution are decided by referendum. Any federal law can be put to a referendum if a petition for reform receives the signatures of 50,000 citizens. This means that the Swiss people have the ability to make changes to the federal system. While the process of and implementing reform may be slow, changes do occur frequently. In recent years the provision, form, and length of compulsory education in Switzerland has been a topic which has challenged the federal system, as debate continues between the Confederation and the various cantonal governments on the extent to which education should be homogenized across the country in order to ensure that Swiss children are best prepared for adulthood. The question of language learning has been a particularly pertinent issue in this regard.