The European Elections Monitor

Open panel Open panel
The European Elections Monitor
Switzerland - Federal Elections

Populist victory in the swiss federal elections

Populist victory in the swiss federal elections

19/10/2003 - Results

The Central Democratic Union (UDC) was the landslide victor in the Swiss federal elections that took place on Sunday 19th October. The populist movement won 27.7% of the vote moving forwards by 5.2 points since the last election on 24th October 1999. The UDC won 55 of the 200 seats in the National Council, that is 11 more than in the previous parliament.

The Leftwing was the other winner in this election: the Swiss Socialist Party (PS) won 24.4% of the vote (+1.7 points in comparison with 1999) acquiring 54 seats; with them the Greens won 7.7% moving forwards by 2.7 points and winning 13 MP's). The centre and moderate rightwing were thrashed: the Radical Democratic Party (PRD) won 16% of the vote (- 3.9 points in comparison with 1999) and 36 seats, along with the Christian Democrat Party (PDC) that witnessed another decline of three points in comparison with the result produced four years ago, winning 12.9% of the vote and only acquiring 28 MP's. Finally the participation rate rose by 2.7 points in comparison with the 1999 elections, hence confirming the slowing in the rise of the abstention level. Voting by proxy has also become more widespread than four years ago thereby boosting substantially this improvement.

The Central Democratic Union has won the wager and confirmed its continuous rise that began over ten years ago. The UDC leader in Zurich Christoph Blocher transformed this agrarian movement, that defended the rights of small landowners in German speaking Switzerland, that encountered a 10% threshold amongst the electorate for many years, into a major political force: 29 seats in 1995, 44 in 1999 and 55 today. "The UDC is now a national party, and not just a Swiss German party", confirmed the populist leader. The UDC has become the largest parliamentary group in the National Council and the leading political movement in the country. The party has succeeded in making a major break through in French Switzerland where it had never managed to rise above the 12% mark. However it seems to have reached a standstill in its home ground Zurich achieving low scores in the mountains and districts such as Appenzell-Ausserrhoden.

The Leftwing movement have more than confirmed their positions and have managed to move forwards. This rise involves the ecologists who have strengthened their position as the leading non-governmental party. The UDC's and Leftwing rise has accentuated the decline of the centre and moderate right. The Christian Democrat Party continues to regress. The centrist movement did not succeed in persuading voters that it could provide solutions to the economic slump that Switzerland is suffering from. However the fall of the Radical Democrat Party was the greatest surprise. The movement did not succeed in keeping its head above water, in spite of forecasts made by the opinion polls, losing nearly four points in comparison with the previous elections on 24th October 1999. Recent suggestions on the part of Pascal Couchepin to raise the retirement age did not help in increasing its popularity.

With the breakthrough made by the Central Democratic Union these elections appear to have been a real political earthquake. However it is not certain that they will finally lead to any major changes on the national political scene. When the results were announced Christoph Blocher, the UDC leader declared, "we have achieved an historic vote and we want to turn the results of this into reality immediately; we want a second seat in the Federal Council". We should remember that the 7 members of the Swiss Federal Council (government) are distributed according to what is generally called the "magic formula"; this means according to how representative they are politically, the equilibrium between languages being a point that is given particular attention. Hence since 1959 the government has comprised two federal councillors from the Christian Democrat Party (PRD), two from the Socialist Party (PS) and one from the Central Democratic Union (UDC). The populist movement, in a strong position due to its electoral success, is demanding a change in the magic formula to its benefit, believing that the results from the ballot boxes provide it with the right to have two representatives within the government from now on.

The UDC has set down its terms: "If a second seat for our candidate is refused we shall withdraw from government and we shall undertake a policy of opposition", warned Ueli Maurer, the UDC president. This demand has been interpreted as blackmail amongst the political community. The UDC president announced on the Alemanic TV channel SF DRS that they wanted to have an additional seat at the expense of the weakest political party, i.e. the Christian Democrat Party, and they also confirmed that negotiations on the withdrawal of his party from the Federal Council had started with Samuel Schmid, the Defence Minister and the only UDC representative in the government. Nevertheless matters are a lot more complicated than they might appear. It is not so certain that the populist leader would really like a second seat attributed to his movement on the Federal Council since this would oblige him to abandon his policy of systematic opposition to the government. "Why do you think I would want to enter the Federal Council since every other government meeting is dedicated to me?" he declared to a socialist MP. In addition to this any change to the magic formula might threaten the country's political stability. However some analysts think that the time has come to provide Christoph Blocher with the opportunity of showing his ability to fulfil an executive role, in the hope that in doing so the populist leader will suffer the same fate as Jörg Haider in Austria, and that his popularity would not survive his entry into government. Allowing the populist leader to have government responsibilities might be a means of preventing him from setting the rhythm of national politics and yet also throw him into the position of a martyr. The Christian Democrat Party is against the entry of a new UDC representative into the government contrary to the PRD and the PS. Christiane Brunner, president of the Socialist Party declared that she could not see any problem in replacing one of the two Christian Democrat ministers by a Central Democrat. On the part of the Radical Democrats President Pascal Couchepin (PRD) also confirmed that a second UDC seat would appear "logical" to him. Finally the traditional movements will probably be quite reticent in shattering a government system, that according to the opinion polls, the population is particularly attached to. The question will be settled by Parliament that is to meet in order to appoint the Federal Council on 10th December next. They have to choose between maintaining the magic formula (with the danger that one voter in four will feel excluded from the political scene) or the entry of a new UDC member into the government. The Finance Minister, Kaspar Villiger (PRD) announced that he will not attend.

The elections to the State Council did not bring many changes. The only real surprise was the historical election of Simonetta Sommaruga in Bern thereby offering an additional seat to the Socialist Party at the cost of the rightwing. In most French districts a second round will be necessary. For the time being the Christian Democrat Party is due to win 12 seats, the Radical Democrat Party, 9, the Central Democratic Union, 6, and the Socialist Party, 5.

The federal elections demonstrated the increase in the electorate's polarisation. The Swiss who have been proud of their institutions and their economic prosperity for a long time have now entered into a period of doubt. Unemployment has risen by two and a half points in one year (rising from 1.5% to 4% of the population), even reaching 8.4% amongst the 18 to 24 year olds. Growth has been lower than the EU average for the last ten years. Finally the Swiss are the only ones to have witnessed a drop in their buying power over the last decade. In spite of the rise of the leftwing, Parliament stills swings to the right. We should remember that the Central Democratic Union is only against the other rightwing movements in some areas, notably on the subject of opening up the country to the outside. Nevertheless the themes for debate are limited: Switzerland is now a member of NATO and joining the EU is not up for discussion. On most questions (taxation, reduction of the public deficit, etc) the moderate right are of one voice.

The future of the magic formula and therefore that of the country will depend on how MP's vote on 10th December. Two solutions are foreseeable: the choice between either favouring continuity or of bringing into effect what the Swiss voted for.

Results of the Swiss Federal Elections on 19th October 2003:

Participation rate: 46%

Source: Agence France Presse
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).
Fondation Robert Schuman
Other stages