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The Swiss parliament (formally called "Federal Assembly") is a bicameral legislature with a multi-party system.

Like other European countries, the parliament elects the ministers who sit in the cabinet, but unlike other countries, the Swiss cabinet is required to reflect the political composition of the parliament as much as possible. This means that pretty much all political parties in parliament are represented in the government at any given time.

This makes me wonder if there is even such a thing as "opposition" in the Swiss parliament. And if there isn't, how does legislative oversight work in Switzerland? Are politicial parties willing to scrutinize their own people in the executive branch?

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    If there are multiple parties having representatives in the government how is there not "opposition" in parliament? Sure someone might not do something about their own party in the cabinet but there are other parties in parliament that can do something about an opposing party in the cabinet.
    – Joe W
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 19:26
  • The opposition's purpose isn't oversight... The responsibility for oversight typically falls to a second chamber like The House of Lords Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 18:09
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    In countries where the majority get to form the government, what would a minority be able to do? Other than a bit of obstruction, and the limitation of a few things that require a supermajority, they can't really do much of anything, certainly not "oversight".
    – jcaron
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 23:47

2 Answers 2

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The fundamental thing to understand is that the Federal Council, as the collective government and the head of state of Switzerland, is collegial and bears collective responsibility similar to the situation in the Westminster system (even if nowadays you may assume it is a given due to the strong party discipline practiced in several Westminster countries).

And if every (major) party is government, every party is also opposition. Collegial and consensus-based decision making also means no party will get all it wants on every issue; compromises are made on different issues along different lines. The compromises and the consultations do not guarantee that the same line would be followed by the Parliament at large. A project may be seen as too extreme or not radical enough at the same time by all sides of an issue.

The Federal Council, once elected, is semi-independent, but subsidiary. There is no impeachment process within the ordinary political framework (an adhoc constitutional amendment, of course, can be initiated by the parliament or the people). Unlike in Westminster systems, the executive does not directly face a question of confidence at all times. The separation of powers gives space to criticism, divergences and debates.

The Parliament remains supreme and can adopt motions to direct the Federal Council's priorities and to ultimately decide (subject to referendum) on proposals of the Federal Council. Like in the Westminster system, motions are binding upon the government unless it interferes with the government's constitutional prerogatives. In Switzerland, the Parliament can direct the Federal Council to initiate a bill or take certain measures via motions. The Parliament can demand the Federal Council to draft new laws or modify proposals, e.g. on agricultural policy and participation in eu-LISA.

The parties alone cannot force "their" councilor to do anything if others do not agree. They rarely criticize individual councilors for their political positions, but instead treat the Federal Council as a collective. They are not harmed by criticizing the Federal Council's position as promoting their own policies in and out of Parliament is more important. The parties happily launch referendums against laws initiated by the Federal Council and passed by the Parliament.

But individual Federal Councillors are criticized, of course, for the handling of their individual portfolio. A Councillor is seen as the Minister of Interior or Justice or Economy, not the Socialist or Liberal-Radical or SVP/UDC Minister. Even then, direct attack on individuals for policy decisions is often seen badly across the political spectrum (but does happen).

Additionally, party disciplines in general are weak in Switzerland. Each cantonal and municipal section, as well as the youth sections (and other subdivisions) often have contrary positions on many issues and may issue different recommendations in referendums (e.g. on same-sex marriage and access to IVF for lesbian couples). Regional and linguistic diversities and differences do exist within political parties.

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There are neither opposition parties nor government parties in the German/French/USA sense.

Legislative oversight is done by all parties, by organisations not represented in parliament and even by individuals. They all critize decisions (by the executive or legislative) that they don't like. Some of them have the power (manpower, financial resources, etc.) to force a referendum on a topic. Those who are known to have the power to force a referendum have influence on the legislative process even when they have no elected representatives at all.

Nitpicks:

  • "Like other European countries, the parliament elects the ministers who sit in the cabinet": the "cabinet" has much less power than in other countries, so I think your "Like" at the beginning of the sentence is indicative of a misunderstanding.
  • "the Swiss cabinet is required to reflect the political composition of the parliament as much as possible": this is not true. It's purely a tradition. If parties formed a coalition with a majority of seats, they could vote only people from their coalition into the federal council ("Swiss cabinet"). Any attempt to do this would be punished with a flurry of referendums and probably also in the next election, but it would be legal. But nevertheless, the federal council is certainly not reflecting the composition of parliament as much as possible!
  • "all political parties in parliament are represented in the government at any given time": the greens are one of the big Swiss parties and they are not represented in the government
  • "Are politicial parties willing to scrutinize their own people in the executive branch?": yes, obviously. They might even exclude someone from their party after the person is voted into the federal council.

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