Municipalities (German: Gemeinden, Einwohnergemeinden or politische Gemeinden; French: communes; Italian: comuni; Romansh: vischnancas) are the lowest level of administrative division in Switzerland. Each municipality is part of one of the Swiss cantons, which form the Swiss Confederation. In most cantons municipalities are also part of districts or other sub-cantonal administrative divisions.
There are 2,222 municipalities as of January 2018[update]. Their populations range between several hundred thousand (Zürich), and a few dozen people (Bister), and their territory between 0.32 km² (Kaiserstuhl and Rivaz) and 439 km² (Scuol).
The beginnings of the modern municipality system date back to the Helvetic Republic. Under the Old Swiss Confederacy, citizenship was granted by each town and village to only residents. These citizens enjoyed access to community property and in some cases additional protection under the law. Additionally, the urban towns and the rural villages had differing rights and laws. The creation of a uniform Swiss citizenship, which applied equally for citizens of the old towns and their tenants and servants, led to conflict. The wealthier villagers and urban citizens held rights to forests, common land and other municipal property which they did not want to share with the "new citizens", who were generally poor. The compromise solution, which was written into the municipal laws of the Helvetic Republic, is still valid today. Two politically separate but often geographically similar organizations were created. The first, the so-called municipality, was a political community formed by election and its voting body consists of all resident citizens. However, the community land and property remained with the former local citizens who were gathered together into the Bürgergemeinde/bourgeoisie. During the Mediation era (1803–1814), and especially during the Restoration era (1814–1830), many of the gains toward uniform citizenship were lost. Many political municipalities were abolished and limits were placed on the exercise of political rights for everyone except the members of the Bürgergemeinde. In the Regeneration era (1830–1848), the liberal revolutions of the common people helped to restore some rights again in a few cantons. In other cantons, the Bürgergemeinden were able to maintain power as political communities. In the city of Zurich it was not until the Municipal Act of 1866 that the political municipality came back into existence.
The relationship between the political municipality and the Bürgergemeinde was often dominated by the latter's ownership of community property. Often the administration and profit from the property were totally held by the Bürgergemeinden, leaving the political municipality dependent on the Bürgergemeinde for money and use of the property. It was not until the political municipality acquired rights over property that served the public (such as schools, fire stations, etc.) and taxes, that they obtained full independence. For example, in the city of Bern, it was not until after the property division of 1852 that the political municipality had the right to levy taxes.
It was not until the Federal Constitution of 1874 that all Swiss citizens were granted equal political rights on local and Federal levels. This revised constitution finally removed all the political voting and electoral body rights from the Bürgergemeinde. In the cities, the percentage of members in the Bürgergemeinde in the population was reduced as a result of increasing emigration to the cities. This led to the Bürgergemeinde losing its former importance to a large extent. However, the Bürgergemeinde has remained, and it includes all individuals who are citizens of the Bürgergemeinde, usually by having inherited the Bürgerrecht (citizenship), regardless of where they were born or where they may currently live. Instead of the place of birth, Swiss legal documents, e.g. passports, contain the Bürgerort (place of citizenship, or place of origin). The Bürgergemeinde also often holds and administers the common property in the village for the members of the community.
Each canton determines the powers and responsibilities of its municipalities. These may include providing local government services such as education, medical and social services, public transportation, and tax collection. The degree of centralization varies from one canton to another. The federal constitution protects the autonomy of municipalities within the framework set out by cantonal law.
Municipalities are generally governed by an executive council headed by a president or mayor. Legislative authority is exercised by a town meeting of all citizens, or by a municipal parliament, depending on the size of the municipality, and on cantonal and municipal law. In some cantons, foreigners who have lived for a certain time in Switzerland are also allowed to participate in municipal politics. As at the cantonal and federal level, citizens enjoy political rights, including direct democratic ones, in their municipality.
Municipalities are financed through direct taxes (such as income tax), with rates varying more or less within a framework set by the canton (see Taxation in Switzerland). As among the cantons, there is a tax transfer among the municipalities to balance various levels of tax income.
Switzerland has a relatively high number of small municipalities, with a population of 1,000 or less, especially in rural areas. Because of the increasing difficulty in providing professional government services and in finding volunteers for political offices in small municipalities, the cantons tend to encourage voluntary mergers of municipalities. This led to the number of municipalities dropping by 362 between the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2018.
Some municipalities designate themselves as "city" (ville or Stadt) or as "village" (Dorf). These designations result from tradition or local preference – for example, several small municipalities designated as cities held city rights in medieval times – and normally do not impact the legal or political rights or obligations of the municipalities under cantonal or federal law.
Municipalities are numbered by the Swiss Federal Office for Statistics (see Community Identification Number#Switzerland). One or more postal codes (PLZ/NPA) can by assigned to a municipality or shared with other municipalities.
|Population||No. of municipalities|
in 2004 (%)
Between 2011 and 2014 six of the smallest municipalities merged into others as part of the effort to eliminate the smallest communities. Of the remaining four from 2011, two merged into other municipalities in 2016.
See cantons of Switzerland for the number of municipalities per canton.
In addition to the municipalities as basic territorial political subdivisions, a number of other local subdivisions exist in several cantons. These include:
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