Comparing and contrasting the federal systems of Ethiopia and Switzerland

Comparing and contrasting the federal systems of Ethiopia and Switzerland
A brief essay by Y.  Kitaw
February 2017

Ethiopia and Switzerland have both a political system based on federalism. Through this essay, I will try to discern similarities and differences between the two federal arrangements.

Federal states are associated with large populations, extensive territories, and polities with territorially based fragmentation.  In fact, every single longstanding democracy in a territorially based multilingual and multinational polity is a federal state. (Stepan, 2005)

Despite being at different ends of the democratic and development continuum, both Ethiopia and Switzerland present the characteristics of a multilingual and multinational polity albeit of different sizes[1]. Both have also retained a relatively perennial independence for several centuries.

Switzerland is among the oldest and longstanding federations in the world (1848) while Ethiopia is among the youngest (1995).

If we start looking at these two federal systems in one the prism of the analytical categories of models of federalism developed by Stepan (2005), Ethiopia would fit in the group of Federations “Holding-Together’ while Switzerland would be in the ‘Coming-Together’.

Indeed the formation of the Swiss Confederation is a gradual continuum in history dating back to the middle Ages with the Old Swiss Confederacy (with just 3 states) and culminating with the establishment in 1848 of a new constitution and federal layout (with over 20 states) in the aftermath of the Sonderbundskrieg civil war.

In contrast, Ethiopia has had historically a unitary state for centuries through monarchy until 1974 and a communist period from 1974 to 1991. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet-style communist regime, the ruling coalition established a federal system creating largely ethnic-based territorial units aspiring to achieve ethnic autonomy and equality while maintaining the unity of the state (Habtu, 2003). As such, unlike the Swiss federation, the Ethiopian federal system would fit under “Holding-Together’ by origin, among the analytical categories forwarded by Stefan (2005).

In the Swiss political system, the concept of direct democracy (closely linked with democratic federalism) gives citizens the right to submit a federal initiative and a referendum as long as they gather enough signatures in a period predefined by law. The federal constitution sets a political system including the direct democracy which includes a set of instruments for citizens to pass or overturn executive decisions at all jurisdictional levels (the municipality, the cantons and the federal). In this regard, Switzerland remains a rare example of a country with solid instruments of direct democracy embedded in its federal structures.  Today, Ethiopia is far from having a democratic federation, let alone direct democracy for its nearly 100 million inhabitants (compared to the 8 million Swiss).

Despite both being multiethnic, multilingual and multiconfessional, the relationships between state and religion as well as degree of tensions between various ethnic, linguistic and religious groups have varied differently in the two nations over the centuries.

For example, in Switzerland, longstanding religious divisions were replaced by linguistic ones in the wake of mid-nineteenth century revolutionary upheavals and nationalism (Calhoun, 1993, p. 220). As late as 1848, Catholic territories made Protestantism unlawful (and vice versa). In this older regime, language was a matter of voluntary personal choice with little political significance. After mid-century, the pattern was reversed. Territories were divided on linguistic lines and religion was a matter of personal preference with markedly reduced political consequence (Anderson 199 1: 138). Yet, federal arrangements in Switzerland were not organized along linguistic territorial lines.

In contrast, the coalition that took control of state power in Ethiopia in 1991 opted for an ethnic federalism (an exception to the general African pattern) which has resulted in rising ethnic tensions in the past years and invites ethnic conflicts and risks state disintegration according to its opponents.[2]

Finally, in terms of analytical categories developed by Stepan (2005), Switzerland is a democratic multinational federation “coming-together,” “demos-constraining,” symmetrical federalism while Ethiopia fits as a multinational federation “holding-together”, “demo-enabling” (to some stretched extent) and asymmetrical but does not function yet as a democratic federation.

While there are some similarities in aspirations of the federal arrangements of Ethiopia and Switzerland, there are significant differences in their nature (democratic and non-democratic), forms and effectiveness of their institutionalization and practices as summarized in the table below.

Similarities Differences
Federation Type In theory, they both are federal republics with parliament: the Swiss one being democratic and the Ethiopian not.

Ethiopia is a federal parliamentary republic while Switzerland is a democratic federal republic. They both have two chambers.

Representations of each state of different population sizes
While the chambers representing the people are similar, the composition of the Federal Chambers are substantially different. The Ethiopia Council of Federation has one member for each nationality and one additional representative for each one million of its population while the Swiss Council of state has 2 councilors per state irrespective of their population size.Constitutional Freedom to secede
Ethiopia’s federation is marked on the texts by the presumption of freedom of exit. Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution permits in principle self-determination up to and including secession.Secession of a canton from the Swiss federation will require a constitutional change.Democratic federal
Switzerland is democratic and while Ethiopia is ruled by a regime that displays most of the characteristics of authoritarianism, but is often labeled as semi-authoritarian regime.
Federating Units The variety in terms of population size of each state. Ethiopian Federal states are Ethnic/language based territorial units while Swiss Cantons are not as they historically were existing states that joined gradually the confederation.
Executive Branch In Ethiopia, the Executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister (head of the government) chosen (not elected) by the parliament


In Switzerland, a Federal Council composed by seven power-sharing Federal Councilors are elected by the Federal Assembly has the executive power.

Legislative Branch Parliaments with two Chambers
In Switzerland, legislation is vested to the two chambers of the Federal Assembly, the National Council (representing the people) and the Council of States (representing the states). Similarly, legislative power is exercised by the Federal Parliamentary Assembly that has two chambers: the Council of People’s Representatives and the Council of the Federation
The degree to which policy-making authority is constitutionally allocated to each states and other subunits
Judicial Branch
Political Parties In Switzerland, none of the political parties strictly represents any one linguistic or religious group while in today’s Ethiopia, the absolute dominant party (and significant others) are ethnic-based or a collation of parties representing different ethnic/linguistic group. In total contrast with Switzerland, the current Ethiopian political system encourages political parties to organize along ethnic lines
Direct Representation Ethiopia is far from being a democratic federation. In Switzerland, direct democracy includes a set of instruments for citizens to pass or overturn executive decisions at all jurisdictional levels (the municipality, the cantons and the federal)
Ethnicity and
Both Ethiopia and Switzerland are multiethnic and multilingual. Ethiopia has over 77 languages and 1 official federal language (Amharic) while in Switzerland all 4 main languages are official languages of the federation.
Religion An important concomitant of state-building and an autonomously significant trend is religion depolitization (Calhoun, 1993, p. 220).


Both Ethiopia and Switzerland are multi confessional (Orthodox Christians/Muslims and Catholic/Protestant respectively) and federal arrangements not crafted along religion lines. Both do not have any state religion and adhere to the principle of the separation of state and religion. (Notwithstanding the degree of depolitization is arguably much higher in Switzerland than Ethiopia today). Relationships between state and religion have varied over the centuries in both countries.

[1] Ethiopia is 10 times more populated than Switzerland. Ethiopia’s population was estimated to be 86,613,986 (2013 est.) while Switzerland’s stood at 8,121,830 (July 2015 est.)

[2] Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia: Background, Present Conditions and Future Prospects – Alem Habtu (2003),%20Alem.pdf