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Cantons of Switzerland

The twenty-six cantons of Switzerland are the states of the federal state of Switzerland. Historically and until the mid-19th century, each canton in the then-confederation was a sovereign state, with its own borders, army, and currency; the current federal structure was established in 1848.

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During the sixteenth century, the Swiss Confederation was composed of thirteen self-governed states. These states were called cantons, and there were two different kinds of cantons: the six forest cantons and seven urban cantons. Though they were technically part of the Holy Roman Empire, they had become almost completely independent when the Swiss defeated Emperor Maximillian in 1499.

The six forest cantons were democratic republics, while the seven urban cantons were governed by city councils. However, these city councils were controlled by small oligarchies of wealthy citizens. The urban cantons included Zürich, Bern, and Basel.

Each canton has its own constitution, legislature, government and courts. Most of the cantons' legislatures are unicameral parliaments, their size varying between fifty-eight and two hundred seats. A few legislatures are general assemblies (Landsgemeinden). The cantonal governments consist of either five or seven members, depending on the canton.

All tasks that do not explicitly fall within the Confederation according to the Swiss Constitution are matters of the cantons. The cantons determine the degree of autonomy of the municipalities, thus this varies greatly. The sizes of the cantons are extremely different: from just 37 to 7,105 square km; the populations vary from 14,900 to 1,244,400.

In cantonal matters, direct democracy in the form of general assemblies (Landsgemeinde) is now confined to the cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus. In all other cantons democratic rights are expressed using the ballot box. Since the creation of the Canton of Jura in 1978 there have been no new cantons. According to the constitution of 1999 , the number of cantons is officially twenty-six, but the number of states (Stände) relevant for election of the Council of States (Ständerat) and voting in federal Initiatives, is twenty-three: the cantons of Unterwalden, Appenzell, and Basel are counted as two half-cantons each. Unterwalden is divided into Obwalden and Nidwalden, Appenzell into Innerrhoden and Ausserrhoden, while Basel is divided into Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft.

The table below lists the cantons in the order of the constitution.

Abbr Canton Since Capital Population1 Official languages
ZH Zürich (Zurich) 1351 Zürich 1,228,600 German
BE Bern (Berne) 1353 Bern 947,100 German, French
LU Lucerne 1332 Lucerne 350,600 German
UR Uri 1291 Altdorf 35,000 German
SZ Schwyz 1291 Schwyz 131,400 German
OW Obwalden (Obwald) 1291 Sarnen 32,700 German
NW Nidwalden (Nidwald) 1291 Stans 38,600 German
GL Glarus 1352 Glarus 38,300 German
ZG Zug 1352 Zug 100,900 German
FR Fribourg 1481 Fribourg 239,100 French, German
SO Solothurn 1481 Solothurn 245,500 German
BS Basel-Stadt (Basle-City) 1501 Basel 186,700 German
BL Basel-Landschaft (Basle-Country) 1501 Liestal 261,400 German
SH Schaffhausen 1501 Schaffhausen 73,400 German
AR Appenzell Ausserrhoden (Outer Rhodes) 1513 Herisau4 53,200 German
AI Appenzell Innerrhoden (Inner Rhodes) 1513 Appenzell 15,000 German
SG St. Gallen (St. Gall) 1803 St. Gallen 452,600 German
GR Graubünden (Grisons) 1803 Chur 185,700 German, Romansh, Italian
AG Aargau (Argovia) 1803 Aarau 550,900 German
TG Thurgau (Thurgovia) 1803 Frauenfeld 228,200 German
TI Ticino 1803 Bellinzona 311,900 Italian
VD Vaud 1803 Lausanne 626,200 French
VS Valais 1815 Sion 278,200 French, German
NE Neuchâtel 1815 Neuchâtel 166,500 French
GE Geneva 1815 Geneva 414,300 French
JU Jura 1979 Delémont 69,100 French
CH Switzerland   Bern 7,261,200 German, French, Italian, Romansh

The two-letter abbreviations for Swiss cantons are widely used, e.g. on car license plates and in the ISO 3166-2 codes (with the prefix "CH-", i.e. CH-SZ for the canton of Schwyz).

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