The confederation of cantons (provinces) that became Switzerland began as a defensive alliance in 1291. The political cornerstone of Switzerland has been its long-standing policy of neutrality. Since being recognized as a state in 1648, Switzerland has not participated in any European political endeavors or military conflicts. Though they had to defend their territory from intrusion, the Swiss were not invaded in the 1st or 2nd World Wars.
The Swiss steadfastly refuse to join the European Union. Switzerland only joined the United Nations in 2002.
There are 26 Swiss cantons, each with its own government. The federal constitution dates to 1848. A new constitution was adopted in 1999 without notable changes in federal government structure.
Switzerland has 3 federal governing bodies: a bicameral legislative parliament, an executive federal council, and an appeals judiciary. Ultimately, parliament holds the power.
The Swiss parliament – Federal Assembly – has 2 houses: the Council of States, and the National Council. The council of states has 46 members: 2 from each canton, and 1 from each half-canton. These representatives are elected by a system of the canton’s devising. The national council has 200 members elected via proportional representation. Members of both houses serve 4 years as a part-time job.
The executive is a Federal Council of 7 people, elected by the federal assembly for a 4-year term. The President of the Confederation is elected by the federal assembly from among the federal council’s 7 members, in rotation, for a 1-year term. The president is merely the titular head of government: each member of the federal council has equal authority.
Switzerland has a tradition of direct democracy. A referendum can be requested for any change in law. Amendments to the constitution require a referendum. There is no constitutional court.
The federal bench comprises 38 full-time and 19 part-time judges, elected to 6-year renewable terms by parliament. The federal tribunal serves for appeal of cases from canton-level courts, as well as arbiter on disputes involving cantons.