Switzerland, in central Europe, is the land of the Alps. Its tallest peak is the Dufourspitze at 15,203 ft (4,634 m) on the Swiss side of the Italian border, one of 10 summits of the Monte Rosa massif. The tallest peak in all of the Alps, Mont Blanc (15,771 ft; 4,807 m), is actually in France. Most of Switzerland is composed of a mountainous plateau bordered by the great bulk of the Alps on the south and by the Jura Mountains on the northwest. The country's largest lakes—Geneva, Constance (Bodensee), and Maggiore—straddle the French, German-Austrian, and Italian borders, respectively. The Rhine, navigable from Basel to the North Sea, is the principal inland waterway.
Called Helvetia in ancient times, Switzerland in 1291 was a league of cantons in the Holy Roman Empire. Fashioned around the nucleus of three German forest districts of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden, the Swiss Confederation slowly added new cantons. In 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia gave Switzerland its independence from the Holy Roman Empire.
French revolutionary troops occupied the country in 1798 and named it the Helvetic Republic, but Napoléon in 1803 restored its federal government. By 1815, the French- and Italian-speaking peoples of Switzerland had been granted political equality.
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna guaranteed the neutrality and recognized the independence of Switzerland. In the revolutionary period of 1847, the Catholic cantons seceded and organized a separate union called the Sonderbund, but they were defeated and rejoined the federation.
New Constitution Establishes a Unified, Neutral State
In 1848, the new Swiss constitution established a union modeled on that of the U.S. The federal constitution of 1874 established a strong central government while giving large powers of control to each canton. National unity and political conservatism grew as the country prospered from its neutrality. Its banking system became the world's leading repository for international accounts.
Strict neutrality was its policy in both world wars. Geneva was the seat of the League of Nations (later the European headquarters of the United Nations) and of a number of international organizations.
Allegations in the 1990s concerning secret assets of Jewish Holocaust victims deposited in Swiss banks led to international criticism and the establishment of a fund to reimburse the victims and their families.
Surprisingly, women were not given the right to vote or to hold office until 1971. Switzerland's first woman president—as well as the first Jew to assume the position—was Ruth Dreifuss in 1999.
In Sept. 2000, the Swiss voted against a plan to cut the number of foreigners in the country to 18% of the population (in 2000 foreigners made up 19.3%). Since 1970, four similar anti-immigration plans have failed.
Switzerland Joins the UN and Moves to the Right Politically
On Sept 10, 2002, the Swiss abandoned their long-held neutrality to become the 190th member of the UN.
In Oct. 2003, Switzerland took a turn to the right when the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) had the strongest showing in parliamentary elections, garnering 28% of the vote. Its virulently anti-immigration, anti-EU leader, Christopher Blocher, was given a cabinet position. The SVP fared well again in October 2007 elections, winning 29% of the vote and gaining seven seats in Parliament. The party took the most votes in general election history. Immigration dominated the election, and the SVP was accused of running a racist campaign. In December, the coalition that has run Switzerland since 1959 fell apart when the SVP withdrew from the government to protest Parliament's ouster of Blocher as justice minister. The move shifted the government to the center-left.
On June 1, 2008, 64% of voters opposed a law initiated by the SVP that would allow secret votes by the public to grant citizenship to foreigners in their towns. However, 57.5% of voters passed a referendum in Nov. 2009 banning the construction of new minarets on mosques. The SVP sponsored the referendum, saying minarets are a symbol of Islamization. Several Western countries and Muslims around the world criticized the vote as discriminatory and intolerant.
The Sept. 22, 2010, elections gave the Swiss cabinet its first-ever female majority. Less than 40 years after women won the right to vote, Social Democrat Simonetta Sommaruga became the fourth female in the seven-member Federal Council.
In Dec., 2011, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf was elected president with 179 of 239 votes, becoming the third consecutive female president. Ueli Maurer was elected vice president. With her election, Widmer-Schlumpf became the first Conservative Democrat to serve as Swiss president.
Ueli Maurer took office as president in Jan. 2013 after garnering 148 of 202 votes in the Federal Assembly. Didier Burkhalter was elected vice president.
On Dec. 4, 2013, Didier Burkhalter was elected president for 2014 after receiving 183 of 202 votes in the Federal Assembly. Simonetta Sommaruga was elected vice president. Burkhalter took office on Jan. 1, 2014.
Early in Feb. 2014, a referendum calling for quotas on EU migrants passed with 50.3% of the vote. Critics point out that this move conflicts with a primary principle of the EU single market—freedom of movement.
Simonetta Sommaruga became president in Jan. 2015, with Johann Schneider-Ammann serving as vice president. Sommaruga is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland. She is related to prominent humanitarian Cornelio Sommaruga.
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