Switzerland, formally called the Swiss Confederation, is a federal republic in western Europe bordered by Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. Established 1 August 1291, the country is today composed of approximately eight million German, French, Italian and Romansch speaking citizens with the highest wealth per adult worldwide.
Switzerland's 41,285 sq km (15,940 sq mi) geography has a mix of the Alps, the Swiss Plateau and the Jura with Zurich and Geneva, the nation's largest cities, on the Plateau. The federal seat of the Swiss Confederation is in Bern, and by constitution the country is administratively divided into 26 cantons, each with its own constitution, which are highly autonomous and are equal in status.
The autonomy of these cantons within the federal structure was developed in the Federal Constitution, adopted in 1848. Power is divided between the Confederation and the cantons, with the federal government divided into three levels, legislative, executive and judicial: a legislative bicameral parliament (Council of States and National Council), executive Federal Council and judiciary Federal Court. Each of the 26 cantons elects two representatives and half-cantons elect one representative to The Council of States, who serve four-year terms. Electoral procedures are determined by the cantons. The National Council of 200 members is elected under a proportional representation system based on each canton's population.
As a direct democracy, Swiss citizens have civic rights (Volksrechte) and thus may challenge law through referendum and introduce amendments to the federal constitution through initiative. Individuals' rights and citizen participation in public affairs are delineated within the constitution itself. To challenge a law passed by Parliament, within 100 days citizens must gather 50,000 signatures opposing the law. Alternatively, a referendum can be called by agreement among eight cantons. With the constitutional initiative, if citizens gather 100,000 voters' signatures within 18 months on a proposed constitutional amendment it is brought to a national vote. However, Parliament has the opportunity to introduce a counter-proposal to supplement the amendment, in which case voters choose between the two options on the ballot. Final approval of constitutional amendments always requires a double majority of the national popular vote as well as a majority of the cantonal popular vote.
Since 1959 a coalition of the four main political parties – Social Democrats, Liberal Democrats, Swiss People's Party and Christian Democrats – have made up the government. The Federal Council, or federal government, manages the federal administration as a collective head of state with seven members, elected by the Federal Assembly for four-year terms, as well as the president of the confederation, chosen from these seven members who serve one-year presidential terms, usually in rotation. The president fills an administrative function rather than authoritative and retains his or her position as administrative department head even while serving the presidential term.
Switzerland maintains a position of armed neutrality and thus has not been involved in a war since 1815, did not join the United Nations until 2002 and while a founding member of the European Free Trade Association, the Swiss Confederation is not a member of the European Union nor the European Economic Area.
The UN Palace of Nations in Geneva is the second largest UN facility in the world. The Red Cross and Red Crescent are headquartered in Switzerland, as is the United Nations Human Rights Council and UN High Commissioner for Refugees as well as approximately 200 other international organizations such as the International Labour Organization and World Trade Organization and international sporting associations including basketball, ice hockey, football and cycling unions and the International Olympic Committee. The World Economic Forum is held annually in Davos, Switzerland. Switzerland is home of the Geneva Conventions and was a founding member and home of the League of Nations.
During the past seven decades urbanization has increased, with 65 to 75 percent of the country's residents now living in cities. Particularly in the Plateau population density is significant. Nonetheless, quality of life in both Zurich and Geneva rank among the top ten cities in the world. All Swiss citizens are required to purchase private health insurance and although high spending on health is of concern, the Swiss have among the greatest life expectancy in the world. The population is relatively evenly split between those who describe themselves as Roman Catholic, Protestant and identify with no specific religion or as atheist.
Culturally, the Swiss Confederation maintains deep traditional customs varied due to the diversity of the population's origins. Alpine symbolism, with its emphasis on skiing, snowboarding, mountaineering, wandering and biking is fairly universal tenet of national identity and tourist appeal. Literature, music, art and sciences are highlighted in nearly 1,000 museums throughout the country and a number of renowned arts festivals are held annually in Switzerland. The national football team, 'Nati,' is very popular; in 2008, Switzerland hosted the Euro 2008 tournament jointly with Austria. Hockey, sailing and auto racing are also popular, as well as traditional sports such as schwingen, hornussen and steinstossen.
Switzerland's renown as a source of fine chocolate, ancient vineyards, lovely cheeses and fine restaurants together with the appeal of a warm fire in the beautiful Swiss chalet after a day of rigorous mountain sports contribute to the Swiss Confederation's image and success as an invigorating and luxurious destination for tourists from around the world.