Switzerland profile - Leaders

  • 29 December 2014
  • From the section Europe

Federal President (rotating): Simonetta Sommaruga (until 1 Jan 2016)

Image caption Simonetta Sommaruga is Switzerland's president for 2015

Switzerland is unusual in having a collective head of state, the seven-member Federal Council, which doubles up as the country's cabinet.

The council was set up by the constitution of 1848, which is still in force today.

Members are elected for four-year terms by a joint session of both houses of parliament, although in practice changes in membership are rare, making the Federal Council one of the world's most stable governments.

The election of a new female minister to the Federal Council in September 2010 gave the cabinet a majority of women for the first time in the country's history.

Each year, by tradition, a different member of the council fills the largely ceremonial post of federal president on a rotating basis. The office does not confer the status of head of state, which is held jointly by all the councillors.

Simonetta Sommaruga, the president for 2015, is also head of the police and justice department. She trained and worked as a concert pianist before joining the Swiss Consumer Protection Foundation lobby group in 1993, later becoming its president. She first entered parliament in 1999.

She is married to the writer Lukas Hartmann.

Grand coalition

For decades, the Federal Council was made up by a grand coalition of all the main parties in parliament, in an effort to ensure stability and promote consensus.

From 1959, membership was apportioned in accordance to a fixed formula which gave the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) two seats, the centre-left Social Democrats (SP) two, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CVP) two and the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) one, regardless of any changes in their share of MPs.

This "magic formula" was amended in 2003, when the anti-EU Swiss People's Party overtook the Free Democrats and Social Democrats to become the most popular party, and was given a second post, at the expense of the waning Christian Democrats.

However, in December 2007, the party ended decades of consensus politics when it suspended its two councillors and declared itself in opposition, after parliament refused to re-elect SVP leader Christoph Blocher to the council over the party's anti-immigration election campaign.

But the Swiss People's Party regained a seat on the council in December 2008. Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, one of the two councillors expelled from the SVP in 2007 is still in office, but as a member of an SVP breakaway group, the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP).