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Switzerland - Federal Elections

Federal elections in Switzerland, 19 October 2003

Federal elections in Switzerland, 19 October 2003

19/10/2003 - Analysis

On 19th October the Swiss are being called to vote in a new National Council, the lower Chamber of Parliament and part of the State Council, the upper Chamber (forty one of the forty six members). The election of the national councillors takes place every four years on the penultimate Sunday in October. The election of the "State Councillors" takes place on the same day in most of the cantons; however since the day and modality of the election are governed by district law and some cantons will hold the election of their councillors of State either before (such is the case in Zug, Appenzell-Rhodes-Intérieures and the Grisons), or afterwards.

The Swiss Political System

There are two chambers in Swiss parliament.

The State Council includes 46 members, elected by majority vote, two seats for each of the 20 Swiss cantons and one seat for each of the six half cantons (Appenzell-Rhodes-Intérieures, Appenzell-Rhodes-Extérieures Basel-Town, Basel-Rural, Nidwald, Obwald). Their four year mandate is renewable according to the modalities designated by the law in each district. On19th October 41 of the 46 seats in the Council will be renewed.

The National Council includes 200 nationally elected councillors by proportional vote within the States of the Swiss Confederation. The 200 seats are distributed according to the population of the districts. Hence the canton of Zurich elects 40 councillors, counting for one fifth of the Council, whilst the smaller cantons have only one seat.

At present there are thirteen political movements represented within the National Council:

The Central Democratic Union (UDC), the successor to the Farmers, Craftsmen and Bourgeois Party, (PAB), that made its debut in the Federal Council in 1929. Since the 1990's this party has clearly taken a rightwing position and witnessed a sharp rise in its election results when in 1999 it became the country's leading party in terms of votes won;

The Socialist Party (PS), after a decade of results below the 20% vote level, is battling it out with the UDC for the first place in intention to vote;

The Radical Democratic Party (PRD) has always been represented in the Federal Council where it held all of the seats until 1891. Since 1983 it has regularly lost ground at each election and came third during the last elections on 24th October 1999. Its parliamentary group is however the largest in the outgoing Parliament;

The Christian Democrat Party (PDC), which was formerly the Catholic Conservative Party is the political organ of Swiss Catholics. It changed its name at the start of the 1970's aiming to reposition itself in the centre. For a long time it represented one fifth of the electorate before witnessing a regular decline in votes in its favour during the 1980's;

The Swiss Ecologist Party - the Greens (PES) is a result of the various ecologist movements that formed within several cantons during the 1970's;

The Swiss Liberal Party (PLS), founded in 1913, uniting the right wing of the Radicals, it has a strong following in French Speaking Switzerland;

The Swiss Democrats (SD), that was founded in 1961 under the name of Action National was positioned in the fight against immigration. They were renamed Swiss Democrats in 1990 and widened their range of political activities;

The Swiss Evangelical Party (EVP) aims to lead a Christian and progressive policy;

The Federal Democratic Union (UDF), founded in 1975 is especially well established in the canton of Bern and advocates a conservative line of politics;

The Swiss Labour Party-The Popular Workers Party (PST), is the successor of the Communist Party that was prohibited in 1940 and is almost exclusively established in French speaking Switzerland;

The Ticino League (LdT) emerged in 1991 as the rightwing movement of protest;

Solidarity (Sol), was born in the French speaking part of Switzerland and is a radical leftwing party;

The Social Christian Party (PCS), is the successor to the 19th Century Christian Social and was only officially founded in 1997.

After the elections on 19th October the two Chambers will convene in the Federal Assembly. The 246 members will renew the government by electing alternately seven members of the Federal Council (government). At present and since 1959 the seven federal councillors (the equivalent of ministers) have been distributed according to what is called in Switzerland "the magic formula" i.e. according to their political representativeness, where the equilibrium between the languages is also respected. Hence the government includes two federal councillors from the Christian Democrat Party (PDC), two from the Radical Democratic Party (PRD), two from the Socialist Party (PS) and one federal councillor from the Central Democratic Union (UDC). This formula has remained unchanged since 1959. At least six of the present federal councillors are to stand for election; one from the Radical Democrat Party has announced his desire to leave the government. The government is not therefore a result of a parliamentary majority elected according to a government programme but the result of an agreement between the country's four main political parties. These parties govern by consensus without a common programme or electoral charter. The legislative texts are a compromise between the parties but often the political movements oppose some government decisions by referendum, including when their representatives within the governments have themselves approved them. The parties can then call on the people only having to gather 50,000 signatures on a referendum project within 100 days of the vote on the law. Over the last few years the leftwing movements have used the referendum, mainly with the aim to hinder the country's liberalisation - the right have used the referendum to oppose a greater opening of the country to the outside world. In spite of initial appearances the people in Switzerland do enjoy real power in controlling government activities and ultimately they assume, in part, the role that in many countries belongs to the opposition parties.

Although the federal elections on 19th October are of relative importance given the consensus that governs the country's political life (abstainers comprised the leading political force in Switzerland during the last federal elections - which is worth noting - saying however that mostly they were satisfied with the system), it is equally true that there are few countries where the citizens have as much direct influence over their government's activities. The Swiss did in fact adopt a proposition on 9th February this year that extends their right to popular initiative thus enabling 50,000 citizens, who so request it, to submit to popular vote any international treaty requiring the adaptation of national law (until now some international treaties were not submitted to popular vote) and thereby allowing 100,000 people to deliver a proposition that aims to adopt, modify or repeal a law or the Constitution.

The famous magic formula has often been questioned. Primarily by the Socialist Party who often reasserted its desire in the 1980's to withdraw from a government that was under far too much influence from the right. When they were invited to express themselves on this question during an extraordinary assembly of the Socialist Party finally decided by 773 votes against 511 that it was better to remain within the government than to be excluded. Today doubts about the magic formula are being expressed by the Central Democratic Union, that has clearly been making progress amongst the electorate since 1995. During the last general elections on 24th October 1999 the Central Democratic Union became the country's leading party winning 22.54% of the vote. The magic formula that was created in 1959 is increasingly less in line with the country's political reality since mathematically the UDC deserves to have a second seat in government. Conversely the Christian Democrat Party, that has been on the decline for the past few years (15.90% of the vote during the last federal election), has become the weakest government party and is therefore over represented within the Federal Council where it has two representatives. However the magic formula cannot just be reduced to a simple mathematical formula, this system also implies, and above all, that the different members of government and therefore the various political parties reach an agreement on a common policy to govern the country. However the Central Democratic Union has set itself apart over the last few years with a systematic policy of opposition to the government by launching numerous referenda against the decisions taken by the government coalition: against the agreements with the European Union, against the creation of a solidarity fund financed by the gold reserves of the National Swiss Bank etc ... In November last a referendum suggesting a toughening up over the right to asylum launched by the UDC, won 49.9% of the vote. This systematic policy of opposition leads its political partners to fear that the country's leading political party has neither the will nor the ability to work towards finding a consensus.

The presidency of the Swiss Confederation is a revolving one with each government minister taking his turn as head of State for a year. The former Economy Minister, Pascal Couchepin (PRD), was elected to this position on 4th December 2002 in replacement of the Finance Minister Kaspar Villiger. For a year, from January 1st 2003, he has ensured the Presidency of the Swiss Confederation. On the same day Micheline Calmy-Rey (PS) was elected to the seat left open by the Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss (PS). During this election the Central Democratic Union's candidate, Zurich MP Toni Bortolozzi, surprised everyone by winning votes outside his own party.

The election stakes

As in many countries in Europe political life in Switzerland is decreasingly influenced by the left-right split and is increasingly divided by a new political rift - where modernity and opening opposes tradition and withdrawal. This niche is largely occupied by the Central Democratic Union that has reduced the other parties to position themselves in relation to it. By defending the civil service and social advantages the Socialist Party appears to be resisting modernity. As a result intentions to vote lead to an increase in the left-right divide (PS on the left and UDC on the right) to the detriment of the centre (PDC and PRD). Opinion polls reveal the increasing influence of real political stakes played in the citizens' vote. Just before the election in 1999 problems surrounding political asylum and immigration were the source of most worry for the German citizens; the economic situation and unemployment worried the French speaking Swiss the most.

This year the political parties are battling out traditional themes, (economic situation, pensions, Europe, the liberalisation of the healthcare system) but they have also been called upon to take position on subjects such as security and immigration. Pensions comprise the central theme of the Radical Democratic Party whilst the Central Democratic Union is taking the lead position in the liberalisation of the healthcare system. According to the latest opinion poll undertaken in September by the Institute for Political and Social Research in Bern (GfS) the five subjects that the Swiss were most worried about were public finance, the asylum policy, the cost of healthcare, the economic crisis and pensions.

This poll also reveals that 52% of the Swiss will go to vote on 19th October next. The Central Democratic Union is strengthening its position as the country's leading political party with 26% of the intention to vote. The Socialist Party takes second place with 22% of the vote, the two other government parties win respectively 20% - Radical Democratic Party - and 15% - Christian Democrat Party. The ecologists have been the source of surprise since they have surpassed the 5% mark for the very first time with 6% of the intention to vote. Amongst the other non government parties the Swiss Liberal Party (PLS) and the Swiss Evangelical Party (EVP) are due to win 2% of the vote respectively; the other parties lie below this figure. In its latest poll the GfS institute also questioned the Swiss on upholding the magic formula. It emerges that a great majority of the population (80%) would like the four main political movements in the country to remain in government. Four Swiss in ten believe that the magic formula should be maintained, one third of the population would like a re-weighting towards the right (an additional seat for the Central Democratic Union at the expense of the Christian Democrat Party); the idea of weakening the Socialist Party was approved by 15% of interviewees only.

Officially 2,836 people are candidates for a seat as national councillor on 19th October, which for the first time, a number that has dropped slightly since the 1970's. Foreign Swiss citizens, who have had the right to vote and who have been eligible for the last 11 years only, will present 16 candidates this year. During the last general election on 24th October 1999 only two foreign Swiss stood. Opinion polls demonstrate how different the foreign Swiss vote is from that of their countrymen in the Swiss Confederation. According to the most recent survey by the Institute for Political and Social Research in Bern (GfS), 31% of them would vote for the Socialist Party, 18% for the Radical Party and 15% for the Central Democratic Union. In addition to this naturalised citizens have presented a list (Second@s Plus) in the canton of Zurich. This list, allied to the Socialist Party, includes 34 candidates of 21 different nationalities.

The constitution of the future parliamentary majority (strengthening or not of the conservative forces) and the modification of the magic formula (increased presence of the Central Democratic Union) are the two main stakes of the Swiss federal elections on 19th October next. Although the opinion polls are particularly in favour of the Central Democratic Union the districts still play a major role in the distribution of seats in Parliament. As a result the expected progress of the Central Democratic Union, notably in the smaller cantons of Central Switzerland that have a reduced number of seats, might come into conflict with the bastions of the Christian Democrat Party.

Reminder of federal election results at the National Council 24 October 1999:

Participation : 43,4%

Source Swiss Parliament
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Francis Luisier
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