Switzerland has a bicameral parliament consisting of the National Council and the Council of States. The National Council represents the people while the Council of States represents the cantons. All 246 members of the two chambers are directly elected every four years by the people. The National Council is elected by proportional representation while the Council of States uses a first-past-the-post system.
The Federal Assembly (Parliament)
The Federal Assembly is Switzerland's legislative power (or legislature). It consists of two chambers: the National Council and the Council of States. Both chambers have the same powers but meet at different times, during what are known in Switzerland as 'sessions'.
The National Council, or 'lower chamber', represents the people and comprises 200 members who are elected by popular vote for a four-year term. The number of representatives sent by each canton depends on the size of its population. As a rule of thumb, each canton may send one elected representative to the National Council for roughly every 40,000 inhabitants.
The Federal Constitution guarantees at least one seat per canton, even if the canton has fewer than 40,000 residents. The cantons of Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, Appenzell-Innerrhoden, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Uri and Glarus send one National Council member each, whereas Zurich, the most heavily populated canton, currently has 35 seats. National Councillors are elected by proportional representation.
Council of States
The Council of States, or 'upper chamber' represents the cantons and comprises 46 members, who are also elected directly by the people for a four-year term. In this case, however, a first-past-the-post system is used. Regardless of their population size, the cantons send two deputies, with the exception of the six half-cantons of Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, Appenzell-Innerrhoden, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Land, which send one deputy each.
Council of States deputies represent their cantons but are not bound by any instructions from their cantonal government or parliament.
Role and powers of the Swiss parliament
The National Council and the Council of States meet separately for three-week sessions four times a year. The two chambers debate all constitutional amendments before putting them to the popular vote. They also adopt, amend or repeal federal legislation.
The National Council and Council of States sit together as the United Federal Assembly at least once a year, usually in December. The Federal Assembly is primarily responsible for electing federal councillors and federal judges.
The Federal Assembly is, in keeping with the Swiss 'militia' concept of community service, a semi-professional parliament. This means that most deputies have another job in addition to their parliamentary duties, which take up an average of 60% of their working hours.