The 26 cantons of Switzerland (German: Kanton, French: canton, Italian: cantone, Romansh: chantun) are the member states of the Swiss Confederation. The nucleus of the Swiss Confederacy in the form of the first three confederate allies used to be referred to as the Waldstätte. Two further major steps in the development of the Swiss cantonal system are referred to by the terms Acht Orte ("Eight Cantons"; between 1353 and 1481) and Dreizehn Orte ("Thirteen Cantons", during 1513–1798); they were important intermediate periods of the Ancient Swiss Confederacy.
Each canton, formerly also Ort (from before 1450), or Stand ("estate", from c. 1550), was a fully sovereign state with its own border controls, army, and currency from at least the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) until the establishment of the Swiss federal state in 1848, with a brief period of centralized government during the Helvetic Republic (1798–1803). The term Kanton was widely used since then.
The term canton, now also used as the English term for administrative subdivisions of other countries, originates in French usage in the late 15th century (recorded in Fribourg in 1467), from a word for "edge, corner", at the time the literal translation of Early Modern High German ort. After 1490, canton was increasingly used in French and Italian documents to refer to the members of the Swiss Confederacy. English use of canton in reference to the Swiss Confederacy (as opposed to the heraldic sense) dates to the early 17th century.
In the Old Swiss Confederacy, the term Ort (plural: Orte) was in use from the early 15th century as a generic term for the member cantons. The founding cantons specifically were also known as Waldstätte "forest settlements", "forest cantons" (singular: Waldstatt). The formulaic Stette und Waldstette for the members of the early confederacy is recorded in the mid-14th century, used interchangeably with Stett und Lender ("cities and lands", "city cantons and rural cantons") until the late 15th century. Ort was increasingly replaced by Stand (plural: Stände) "estate" about 1550, a term taken to imply liberty and sovereignty. Abolished in the Helvetic Republic, the term was revived in 1815 and remains in use today.
The French term canton adopted into German after 1648, and then only in occasional use until the early 19th century: prominent usage of Ort and Stand gradually disappeared in German-speaking Switzerland from the time of the Helvetic Republic. Only with the Act of Mediation of 1803 did German Kanton become an official designation, retained in the Swiss Constitution of 1848.
The term Stand (French: état, Italian: stato) remains in synonymous usage and is reflected in the name of the upper chamber of the Swiss Parliament, the Council of States (German: Ständerat, French: Conseil des États, Italian: Consiglio degli Stati, Romansh: Cussegl dals Stadis).
In the modern era, since Neuchâtel ceased to be a principality in 1848, all Swiss cantons can be considered to have a republican form of government. Some cantons formally describe themselves as republics in their constitutions. This applies to the Romance-speaking cantons in particular: Geneva (formally République et canton de Genève "Republic and canton of Geneva"), Jura, Neuchâtel, Valais, Vaud and Ticino.
In the 16th century, the Old Swiss Confederacy was composed of 13 sovereign confederate allies (the Thirteen Cantons; German: Die Dreizehn Alten Orte), and there were two different kinds: five rural states (German: Länder) – Uri, Schwyz (which became eponymous of the confederacy), Unterwalden, Glarus, Appenzell – and eight urban states (German: Städte) – Zürich, Bern, Luzern, Zug, Basel, Fribourg, Solothurn, Schaffhausen.
In the early modern period, the individual confederate allies came to be seen as republics; while the six traditional allies had a tradition of direct democracy in the form of the Landsgemeinde, the urban states operated via representation in city councils, de facto oligarchic systems dominated by families of the patriciate.
The old system was abandoned with the formation of the Helvetic Republic following the French invasion of Switzerland in 1798. The cantons of the Helvetic Republic had merely the status of an administrative subdivision with no sovereignty. The Helvetic Republic collapsed within five years, and cantonal sovereignty was restored with the Act of Mediation of 1803. The status of Switzerland as a federation of states was restored, at the time including 19 cantons (the six accessions to the early modern Thirteen Cantons being composed of former associates and subject territories: St. Gallen, Grisons, Aargau, Thurgau, Ticino, Vaud). Three additional western cantons, Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva, acceded in 1815.
The process of "Restoration", completed by 1830, returned most of the former feudal rights to the cantonal patriciates, leading to rebellions among the rural population. The Liberal Radical Party embodied these democratic forces calling for a new federal constitution. This tension, paired with religious issues ("Jesuit question") escalated into armed conflict in the 1840s, with the brief Sonderbund War. The victory of the radical party resulted in the formation of Switzerland as a federal state in 1848. The cantons retained far-reaching sovereignty, but were no longer allowed to maintain individual standing armies or international relations. As the revolutions of 1848 in Western Europe had failed elsewhere, Switzerland during the later 19th century (and with the exception of the French Third Republic, until the end of World War I) found itself as an isolated democratic republic, surrounded by the restored monarchies of France, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Constitutions and powers
The Swiss Federal Constitution declares the cantons to be sovereign to the extent that their sovereignty is not limited by federal law. Areas specifically reserved to the Confederation are the armed forces, currency, the postal service, telecommunications, immigration into and emigration from the country, granting asylum, conducting foreign relations with sovereign states, civil and criminal law, weights and measures, and customs duties.
Most of the cantons' legislatures are unicameral parliaments, their size varying between 58 and 200 seats. A few legislatures also involve or did involve general popular assemblies known as Landsgemeinden; the use of this form of legislature has declined: at present it exists only in the cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus. The cantonal executives consist of either five or seven members, depending on the canton. For the names of the institutions, see the list of cantonal executives and list of cantonal legislatures.
The cantons retain all powers and competencies not delegated to the Confederation by the federal constitution or law: most significantly the cantons are responsible for healthcare, welfare, law enforcement, public education, and retain the power of taxation. Each canton defines its official language(s). Cantons may conclude treaties not only with other cantons but also with foreign states (respectively Articles 48 and 56 of the Federal Constitution).
The cantonal constitutions determine the internal organisation of the canton, including the degree of autonomy accorded to the municipalities, which varies but almost always includes the power to levy taxes and pass municipal laws; some municipalities have their own police forces.
As at the federal level, all cantons provide for some form of direct democracy. Citizens may demand a popular vote to amend the cantonal constitution or laws, or to veto laws or spending bills passed by the parliament. Other than in the instances of general popular assemblies in Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus, democratic rights are exercised by secret ballot. The right of foreigners to vote varies by canton, as does whether Swiss citizens living abroad (and registered to vote in a canton) can take part in cantonal voting.
Swiss citizens are citizens of a particular municipality (the place of origin) and the canton in which that municipality is part. Cantons therefore have a role in and set requirements for the granting of citizenship (naturalisation), though the process is typically undertaken at a municipal level and is subject to federal law.
Switzerland has only one federal public holiday (1 August); public holidays otherwise vary from canton to canton.
The cantons are listed in their order of precedence given in the federal constitution. This reflects the historical order of precedence of the Eight Cantons in the 15th century, followed by the remaining cantons in the order of their historical accession to the confederacy.
The two-letter abbreviations for Swiss cantons are widely used, e.g. on car license plates. They are also used in the ISO 3166-2 codes of Switzerland with the prefix "CH-" (Confœderatio Helvetica—Helvetian Confederation—Helvetia having been the ancient Roman name of the region). CH-SZ, for example, is used for the canton of Schwyz.
Six of the 26 cantons are traditionally, but no longer officially, called "half-cantons" (German: Halbkanton, French: demi-canton, Italian: semicantone, Romansh: mez-chantun). In two instances (Basel and Appenzell) this was a consequence of a historic division, whilst in the case of Unterwalden a historic mutual association, resulting in three pairs of half-cantons. The other 20 cantons were, and in some instances still are — though only in a context where it is needed to distinguish them from any half-cantons — typically termed "full" cantons in English.
The historic half-cantons, and their pairings, are still recognizable in the first article of the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1999 by being joined to their other "half" with the conjunction "and":
In contrast, the first article of the 1848 and 1874 constitutions constituted the Confederation as the union of "twenty-two sovereign cantons", referring to the half-cantons as "Unterwalden (ob und nid dem Wald [‘above and beneath the woods’])", "Basel (Stadt und Landschaft [‘city and country’])" and "Appenzell (beider Rhoden [‘both Rhoden’])". The 1999 constitutional revision retained this distinction, on the request of the six cantonal governments, as a way to mark the historic association of the half-cantons to each other. While the older constitutions referred to these states as "half-cantons", a term that remains in popular use, the 1999 revision and official terminology since then use the appellation "cantons with half of a cantonal vote".
The reasons for the existence of the three pairs of half-cantons are varied:
- Unterwalden never consisted of a single unified jurisdiction. Originally, Obwalden, Nidwalden, and the Abbey of Engelberg formed distinct communities. The collective term Unterwalden remains in use, however, for the area that partook in the creation of the original Swiss confederation in 1291 with Uri and Schwyz. The Federal Charter of 1291 called for representatives from each of the three "areas".
- The historical canton of Appenzell divided itself into "inner" and "outer" halves (Rhoden) as a consequence of the Reformation in Switzerland in 1597: Appenzell Innerrhoden (Catholic) and Appenzell Ausserrhoden (Protestant).
- The historical canton of Basel was divided in 1833 after the Basel countryside (which became the canton of Basel-Landschaft) declared its independence from the city of Basel (which became the canton of Basel-Stadt), following a period of protest and armed conflict about the under-representation of the more populous countryside in the canton's political system.
With their original circumstances of partition now a historical matter, the half-cantons are since 1848 equal to the other cantons in all but two respects:
- They elect only one member of the Council of States instead of two (Cst. art. 150 par. 2). This means there are a total of 46 seats in the council.
- In popular referendums about constitutional amendments, which require for adoption a national popular majority as well as the assent of a majority of the cantons (Ständemehr / majorité des cantons), the result of the half-cantons' popular vote counts only one half of that of the other cantons (Cst. arts. 140, 142). This means that for purposes of a constitutional referendum, at least 12 out of a total of 23 cantonal popular votes must support the amendment.
Between 1831 and 1833 the canton of Schwyz divided into half-cantons: (Inner) Schwyz and the break-away Outer Schwyz; in this instance the half-cantons were forced by the Confederation to settle their disputes and re-unite.
In the 20th century, some Jurassic separatists suggested a new canton of Jura to be divided into half-cantons of North Jura and South Jura. Instead, North Jura became the (full) canton of Jura while South Jura remains in the canton of Bern as the region of Bernese Jura.
Names in national languages
The name of each canton in its own official language is shown in bold.
Admission of new cantons
The enlargement of Switzerland by way of the admission of new cantons ended in 1815. The latest formal attempt considered by Switzerland was of Vorarlberg in 1919 but subsequently rejected. A few representatives submitted in 2010 a parliamentary motion to consider enlargement although it was widely seen as anti-EU rhetoric rather than a serious proposal. The motion was eventually dropped and not even examined by the parliament.