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With the adoption of the 1848 Federal Constitution, the Swiss people became the supreme political authority of their 26-canton federal state.
The Parliament (legislative branch) is elected directly by the people (all citizens 18 years of age and over are eligible to vote), and consists of two chambers.
The National Council represents the population of the country as a whole, with each canton represented in proportion to the number of its inhabitants.
The Council of States represents the 26 cantons. Each canton sends two representatives (except the six former half-cantons, which send one representative each).
When both chambers are in joint session, they are known collectively as the United Federal Assembly.
The Federal Council (executive branch) consists of seven members and the Federal Chancellor, and is elected by the United Federal Assembly for a four-year term. The President of the Swiss Confederacy is elected every year, and is considered first among equals during that time. He chairs the sessions of the Federal Council and undertakes special ceremonial duties.
The Supreme Court (judicial branch) is elected by the legislative authority.
Swiss citizens are subject to three legal jurisdictions: the communal, the cantonal and the federal levels. The Federal Constitution defines the repartition of the tasks between the Confederacy and the Cantons. For example, primary and secondary education is under the jurisdiction of the cantons, thus resulting in 26 different educational systems within Switzerland. Higher education is regulated at federal level for the Federal institutes of technology in Zurich and Lausanne, but mainly at cantonal level for cantonal universities.
In the same way the cantonal constitutions define the repartition of tasks between the canton and the communes. For example, the management of the primary schools is usually dealt with at communal level.
In Switzerland, as in all democratic countries, citizens elect representatives to act on their behalf for a given period (representative democracy). But Switzerland gives its citizens the opportunity to take a direct part in decision-making as well (direct democracy): they can propose legislation of their own (initiative), thwart legislation already approved by parliament (facultative referendum), and must vote on any amendments to the constitution or adhesion to supra-national entities such as the EU that are proposed by the Parliament (mandatory referendum). This has led the Swiss citizens to vote on the most unexpected issues: the reduction of the speed limit to 30kmh in urban areas (refused), a 5-year moratorium on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture (accepted), the suppression of the army (refused), or the introduction of a VAT (accepted)!