Learning from Swiss federalismIt’s important to recognise that Nepal’s approach to federalism should be unique to itself.
Switzerland is approximately four times smaller than Nepal, but this Himalayan republic can learn a few lessons from Swiss federalism. Nepal has seen seven constitutions in 75 years, with politicians often treating the country like a playground. Switzerland has had the same federal constitution for 175 years.
Switzerland’s institutional framework comprises three tiers of governance: The federation, consisting of 26 cantons, and 2,136 communes, which are local governments. Switzerland’s local governments have full autonomy. They are responsible for local economic and infrastructure development and service delivery. The mentality of Nepal's federal government is so poor that it wants to handle local tasks itself.
When examining Switzerland’s parliamentary structure in comparison to Nepal, both countries have a bicameral system comprising the National Council (similar to Nepal’s House of Representatives) and the Council of States (similar to Nepal’s National Assembly). In terms of rights and authority, both chambers in Switzerland hold equal standing, whether it's related to government formation or legislative matters. In contrast, Nepal’s Upper House has no role in government formation. In the legislative procedure, its role has also been neglected.
Switzerland’s constitution empowers its cantons significantly. The cantons entirely influence the Swiss upper house, as they conduct elections at the cantonal level and send their representatives to the upper house. The flags and maps of all 26 cantons are prominently displayed within the Swiss Parliament chamber walls. While parliamentary activities in the lower house are conducted in four languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), in the case of the upper house, the representatives speak their respective cantonal languages. What’s admirable about Switzerland is its deep respect for its languages, arts, cultures and traditions.
Parliament members believe that they represent both the people and the cantons, a sentiment echoed within the walls of the parliament building. Moreover, symbols within the building emphasise the responsibility of the parliamentarians to envision Switzerland’s future at five-, 10- and 100-year intervals.
In Switzerland, serving as a member of parliament (MP) is akin to a part-time role, and the members receive only allowances during house sessions. They do not get any salary. This contrasts with Nepal, where politics often constitutes a full-time profession, and the members are typically not allowed to work outside of it. Switzerland’s approach allows MPs to engage in other professional activities.
While the practice of MPs working outside their parliamentary duties could raise concerns about conflict of interest, especially in legislative processes, planning and budgeting, Switzerland employs a robust democratic tool: The popular voting system. This system ensures that both the parliament and the government remain fully accountable to the people. Before introducing bills or proposing new programmes and projects, the Swiss government engages with the cantons, political parties and relevant groups. This inclusive approach minimises the likelihood of conflict of interest during the bill drafting process, among other benefits.
Another aspect I observed in the Swiss parliament is that the same individual can simultaneously serve as a member of the Council of States and their cantonal parliament. For instance, during my discussion with Mathias Zopfi, a Member of the Council of States, he mentioned that he also represents his Glarus Süd cantonal parliament. Professionally, he is a lawyer and receives no salary or benefits from either chamber. Nepal can draw valuable lessons from Switzerland’s parliamentary practices.
One of the aspects I admire most about Switzerland is its unique government structure. In Switzerland, the head of state and the head of government are the same person, known as the president. Moreover, the Swiss government is designed to be lean, limiting the number of ministers to no more than seven, which includes the president. Additionally, the term of office of the president is restricted to a maximum of one year.
The seven members (Federal Council) are elected by the parliament (Federal Assembly). When electing these persons, it is essential to ensure proper representation of the country’s diverse geographical and linguistic regions. They hold their positions for a term of four years. Any Swiss citizen eligible for election to the National Council can also be elected to the Federal Council. To attain the position of supreme governing executive, one doesn’t need to become an MP. Individuals elected by the parliamentary members can achieve this position.
The Swiss constitution states, “The Federal Council reaches its decisions as a collegial body.” Each member of the Federal Council holds equal status within this collegial body. The president of the Swiss Confederation chairs the meetings, but does not possess any special rights.
In the Swiss federal system, there are a total of seven ministers, including the president. All seven of these executive officials are appointed by the parliament, and they share equal authority among themselves. The president’s role does not grant them influence over the ministerial duties of the other members. The President’s term is limited to one year and is not eligible for renewal. However, these same seven authorities collectively govern the country for a maximum of four years, subject to unanimous decisions.
Decentralisation of power
The federal parliament holds the responsibility for enacting laws, which are subsequently implemented by the cantons. The government actively seeks advice and suggestions from the cantons before making any significant decisions. The federal parliament also handles the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court, as well as the position of the Federal Chancellor (administrative chief, like the chief secretary in Nepal ). Moreover, the federal parliament continually monitors and oversees the activities of both the executive and judicial branches. Before implementing any new plans and programmes, the federal government seeks feedback and suggestions from the relevant stakeholders, including the cantons.
These are some of the key features of the federal system in Switzerland, where constitutional power is decentralised to the cantons and communes. The Swiss political culture strongly emphasises democratic norms and principles, and the country upholds the rule of law with well-defined governing bodies.
We need not look far to witness federalism in action; Switzerland provides a valuable example. However, it’s important to recognise that Nepal’s approach to federalism should be unique to itself. The government and political parties must adhere to the constitution's principles and spirit, but efforts are essential to address the implementation challenges progressively.