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I. Overview of the Functioning of the National Legislature

The Swiss Federal Assembly (parliament) is made up of two bodies with equal powers, the National Council, which represents the people, and the Council of States, which represents the individual cantons (states).[1] They conduct their proceedings separately, but both chambers must agree to adopt a decision.[2] Decisions are generally taken by majority vote.[3] A quorum, meaning a majority of the members, must be present for a vote to be valid.[4] Before a vote is taken, the president of the respective Council establishes whether there is a quorum.[5] Members must appear in person for the sessions.[6] Voting takes place through an electronic voting system.[7]

In cases of emergencies, the parliament may declare a federal act “urgent” by an absolute majority of the members of each of the two Councils and bring the law immediately into force.[8] These emergency federal acts must be limited in duration.[9] Emergency federal acts that are not based on a provision of the Constitution and whose term of validity exceeds one year are subject to a referendum.[10]

Furthermore, the Constitution authorizes the Swiss parliament and the Swiss Federal Council, the Swiss government, to take measures to ensure the internal and external security of Switzerland. In “extraordinary circumstances,” they may issue ordinances, decrees, or rulings in order to fulfill these duties.[11] These legislative acts are not subject to a mandatory or facultative referendum as other legislative acts are.[12] If the Federal Council adopts measures to deal with extraordinary circumstances, it must submit the ordinances to parliament within six months.[13]

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II. Emergency Parliament

No provision could be identified in the Swiss Constitution that establishes an emergency parliament to act during times of crises.

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III. Measures Taken During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On March 15, 2020, the Swiss parliament decided not to convene for the third week of its spring session.[14] In general, it regularly convenes four times a year for three weeks each.[15] The special sessions in May and June will take place, but only urgent business will be debated.[16]

The following safety measures and procedural adjustments have been put in place:

  • The parliamentary services are searching for an alternative location in Bern for parliament to convene so that safe distances between members can be observed.
  • Voting by a show of hands will be permitted if parliament convenes in a different location, but it will not be recorded which member voted in favor or against a measure.
  • Certain deadlines for legislative actions are suspended.
  • Social distancing must be observed during all in-person committee and delegation meetings.
  • If necessary, committee and delegation meetings pertaining to urgent matters may be conducted via phone or video conferencing.[17]

Furthermore, the federal referendums scheduled for May 17, 2020, have been canceled.[18]

The Swiss Federal Council has declared the existence of “extraordinary circumstances” and adopted several ordinances to combat the spread of COVID-19, among them travel restrictions, prohibitions of gatherings of people, prohibitions of private and public events, prohibitions of in-person classes, and reporting requirements.[19]

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Prepared by Jenny Gesley
Foreign Law Specialist
March 2020

[1] Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft [BV], Apr. 18, 1999, Systematische Rechtssammlung [SR] 101, art. 148, para. 2, (original), (English translation).

[2] Id. art. 156, paras. 1, 2.

[3] Id. art. 159, para. 2.

[4] Id. art. 159, para. 1.

[5] Geschäftsreglement des Nationalrates [GRN], Oct. 3, 2003, SR 171.13, art. 38,; Geschäftsreglement des Ständerates [GRS], June 20, 2003, SR 171.14, art. 31,

[6] GRN, art. 40; GRS, art. 32.

[7] GRN, art. 56; GRS, art. 44.

[8] BV, art. 165.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. art. 165, para. 3, art. 140, para. 1, letter c.

[11] Id. art. 173, para. 1; art. 185.

[12] Id. arts. 140, 141.

[13] Regierungs- und Verwaltungsorganisationsgesetz [RVOG], Mar. 21, 1997, SR 172.010, art. 7d, (original), (English translation).

[14] Press Release, Die Bundesversammlung — Das Schweizer Parlament, Keine dritte Sitzungswoche der Frühlingssession der Bundesversammlung (Mar. 15, 2020),

[15] Sessionen, Die Bundesversammlung – Das Schweizer Parlament,

[16] Press Release, Die Bundesversammlung – Das Schweizer Parlament, Schweizer Parlament bleibt in der Krise handlungsfähig (Mar. 19, 2020),

[17] Id.

[18] Press Release, Bundesrat, Coronavirus: die eidgenössische Volksabstimmung vom 17. Mai 2020 wird nicht durchgeführt (Mar. 18, 2020),

[19] Jenny Gesley, Switzerland: Government Adopts More Stringent Measures to Contain Spread of Coronavirus, Global Legal Monitor (Mar. 16, 2020),; New Coronavirus: Federal Government Measures, Federal Office of Public Health [FOPH],

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020