The European Elections Monitor

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

Switzerland in great doubt, will soon renew its political institutions

Switzerland in great doubt, will soon renew its political institutions

26/09/2011 - Analysis

The Swiss are being called to ballot on 23rd October next to renew their parliament i.e. 200 members of the National Council and the 46 members of the Council of States. 3,472 people including 32.6% of whom are women are standing in the National Council elections i.e. +12.4% in comparison with the previous elections on 21st October 2007 and 149 people are standing for a seat on the Council of States (136, 4 years ago).

Switzerland is governed according to a consensus. The main political parties form a government together; the national consensus is created thereby reducing the danger of protest by way of referendum, in a country where democracy is direct. Over the last few years the Swiss model has been put to the test, since participation in government does not guarantee greater consensus. Indeed the party with one seat on the Federal Council, the Swiss People's Party (UDC/SVP) plays the role of opposition and at the same time desires to win a second seat. Hence over the last four years all of the government parties have supported the Federal Council's position in only two popular votes out of 25 (abolition of the general people's initiative and special funding for air transport). The Socialist Party (PSS/SPS) has opposed the Federal Council 13 times and the UDC/SVP 12. This party, which has gained ground in nearly all of the cantons over the last four years, has increasing influence over policy content.

Two electoral campaigns in one

The integration of foreigners and more widely, immigration, are central themes in the electoral campaign but the international economic crisis also occupies a major place in ongoing debates. Although the economy of their country is bearing up well, the Swiss share the same concern as other Europeans about their future in a globalised world. Finally environmental issues are equally important in the campaign. "This is new. There is now a clear story behind the campaign. The influence of external events has replaced traditional issues. The campaign is drawing away from the usual framework and is turning into a national debate," analyses Claude Longchamp, director of the opinion institute gfs.berne.

On 7th September last, Micheline Calmy-Rey (PSS/SPS), the present president of the Helvetic Confederation and Foreign Minister announced that she was quitting her position as Federal Councillor at the end of her mandate in December.
The Federal Council, comprising seven members, elected for four years by Parliament, exercises executive power in Switzerland. For many years it has been customary that outgoing candidates are re-elected to their post, at least as long they agreed to taking up their position. Until 2003 the distribution of seats on the council was governed by the magic formula (2-2-2-1), i.e. 2 seats for the Free Democratic Party (PRD/FDP), 2 for the Christian Democratic People's Party (PDC/CVP), 2 for the PSS/SPS and 1 for the UDC/SVP. In that year the Federal Councillor Ruth Metzler-Arnold (PDC/CVP) was not re-elected – this was the first time that this had happened in Switzerland since 1872 - and her seat went to Christoph Blocher (UDC/SVP). After the federal elections of 21st October 2007, Samuel Schmid (UDC/SVP) and Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (UDC/SVP), who replaced Christoph Blocher, not re-elected to his post – were banished from their party. They then founded the Conservative Democratic Party with other dissident party members (PDB). In 2009, Samuel Schmid resigned from office as Federal Councillor and was replaced by Üli Maurer (UDC/SVP).
To date the Federal Council comprises five parties: the Free Democratic Party (2 seats), the Socialist Party (2 seats), the Christian Democratic Party (1seat), the Swiss People's Party (1seat) and the Conservative Democratic Party (1 seat). The latter has five seats in the Federal Assembly and 1 seat on the Council of States.
In addition to the campaign to renew parliament, the successor to the present president of the Helvetic Confederation has to be chosen. For the very first time the result of the federal elections will directly affect the future composition of the Federal Council, a situation which brings Bern closer to other democracies of Europe.

Another sign of Switzerland's metamorphosis is that the Swiss political landscape has polarised and the electorate is extremely dispersed. The country's legendary consensus and stability are now being challenged. Switzerland has three political groups of equal strength: the nationalist right, the centre-right and the ecologist, socialist left. On the centre-right the Free Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Party, united for the last 70 years with the liberals in the Entente Bourgeoise, are struggling and are somewhat paralysed because they are divided. Both have lost a great number of voters, who have joined the ranks of the Swiss People's Party, the Conservative Democratic Party and even the Liberal Green Party (GLP/VL). The left is more united, but the Socialist Party is still threatened by the Greens, who have had to reposition in the wake of the departure of some of their members.
As across all of Europe the government parties are the first to be criticised and all the more harshly in these times of crisis. Accused of not listening to the population's concerns or for not having known how to respond, they have been more affected by the electorate's discontent than the protest parties. The populists of the UDC/SVP are gaining ground in the ballot box, and every year they become increasingly radical.

Just one month before the federal elections the Free Democratic Party, the Socialist Party and the Christian Democratic Party want to retain their seats on the Federal Council – the Swiss People's Party wants to win two and the Greens hope to win their first and the Conservative Democratic Party would also like to retain its seat.
The UDC/SVP is claiming Micheline Calmy-Rey's seat. "In line with the principle of "consensus" the Swiss People's Party has the right to have two seats on the Federal Council. It is likely that after the federal elections, the Socialist Party will also have the right to two seats. If the right of the Swiss People's Party to have two seats is acknowledged then we shall have no reason to attempt to take Micheline Calmy-Rey's seat," indicated Toni Brunner, chair of the UDC/SVP. Socialist Party Chair, Christian Levrat has acknowledged the UDC/SVP's right to have two federal councillors based on the rule whereby the three leading parties have the right to two seats. In this case the UDC/SVP may win the seat of Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (PBD). If the populist party wins a second seat it may put forward Freiburger Jean-François Rime.
Micheline Calmy-Rey's replacement will be appointed on 14th December next.

The Swiss Political System

The Swiss system is qualified as being perfect bicameralism: the two chambers of Parliament – the National Council and the Council of State – have the same competences. The position of MP is not a profession in Switzerland; MPs undertake their mandate for which they receive compensation, alongside a professional activity.
The National Council represents the people and comprises 200 members elected every four years according to a proportional system. Each of the country's 26 cantons elects a number of MPs proportional to its population. The canton of Zurich has 34 MPs, the cantons of Appenzell Inner Rhodes, Appenzell Ausser Rhodes, Glaris, Nidwald and Obwald, one each.
The Council of States represents the cantons and comprises 46 members elected every four years according to a majority system (a relative majority in the canton of Geneva and an absolute majority in Vaud) except in the canton of Jura (proportional vote). The cantons each have 2 seats in the Council of States (except for the half cantons of Obwald, Nidwald, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Appenzell Ausser Rhodes and Appenzell Inner Rhodes which only have one seat each). A second round of voting is organised in the cantons electing their councillors by an absolute majority if no candidate wins the necessary number of votes in the first round. The second round takes place three weeks later; this time it will be on 13th November.

12 political parties are represented in the outgoing National Council:

– the Swiss People's Party (UDC/SVP), chaired by Toni Brunner, is the successor to the Farmers, Traders and Independents' Party (BGB). A populist rightwing party and the leading political movement since the federal elections on 24th October 1999; it has 62 seats;
– the Socialist Party (PSS/SPS), led by Christian Levrat, has 43 MPs;
– the Free Democratic Party (PRD/FDP) has always been represented on the National Council where it held all of the seats until 1891. Led by Fulvio Pelli it has experienced constant decline since 1983 and has 31 seats;
– the Christian Democratic Party (PDC/CVP), formerly the Conservative Catholic Party is the political body of the Swiss Catholics. Positioned on the centre-right of the political scale, it is led by Christophe Darbellay; it has been declining since the 1980's and has 31 seats;
– the Ecologist Party-Greens (PES/GPS), was formed in the wake of the ecologist movements which emerged in the 1970's and is led by Uli Leuenberger with 20 seats;
– the Liberal Party (PLS/LPS), was founded in 1913 and is led by Pierre Weiss, it rallies the liberal right. It has 4 seats;
– the Greens-Liberal Party (GLP/VL), founded in 2007 by Martin Bäumle, former member of the Greens, of which he is still the leader; it has 3 MPs;
– the Evangelical Party (PEV/EVP), a Christian party led by Heiner Studer; it has 2 seats;
– the Federal Democratic Union (UDF/EDU), a conservative party founded in 1975, led by Hans Moser with 1 seat;
– the Swiss Party of Labour (PST/PdA), a far left party which succeeded the Communist Party that was banned in 1940; it has 1 seat;
– the Ticino League (LEGA), a rightwing protest movement, founded in 1991 and led by Giuliano Bignasca; it has 1 seat;
– the Christian Social Party (PCS/CSP), founded in 1997 and successor to the 19th century Christian Social Movement. It is led by Marius Achermann, it has 1 MP.

6 political parties are represented on the outgoing Council of States: the Christian Democratic Party with 15 seats, the Free Democratic Party 12 seats, the Socialist Party 9 seats, the Swiss People's Party 7, the Ecologist-Greens 2 and the Green Liberal Party 1.

The executive power is exercised by the Federal Council, comprising seven members elected for four years by Parliament. The Federal Council represents the country's various regions and linguistic communities and works according to the collegial principal; all decisions are taken according to a consensus. The Swiss government is not therefore the result of a majority parliament elected according to a government programme, but results from an agreement between the main political parties. The idea of political alternation is does not exist therefore.
The Helvetic Confederation is led by a President, elected for one year by the federal councillors. The role of the Head of State is mainly symbolic and honorary. Traditionally each federal councillor is elected alternately according to the time he/she has spent in the office. The post is presently occupied by Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Some political leaders support a reform of the political system so that it would be more in line with the weight of the votes of the Swiss people. The UDC/SVP has put forward an initiative which the Swiss will certainly be called to vote on in the near future. The text plans for the election of the Federal Council by direct universal suffrage – an old claim made by the Socialist Party – and the organisation of federal elections every four years according to a majority system within one national constituency. The candidates that win the absolute majority in the first round would be declared elected. In the second round the simple majority would be enough. Two seats would be set aside for people living in the French speaking areas, in Ticino and in the Italian speaking Grisons. The Federal Assembly would elect the Chancellor of the Confederation and the judges of the Federal Court. The Federal Council and not the Parliament would appoint the President and the Vice-President of the Helvetic Confederation for one year. The Swiss have already rejected this initiative twice (in 1900 and 1942).

135,000 of the 695,000 Swiss living abroad are registered on the electoral rolls for the election on 23rd October. 21,000 of them will be able to vote by internet. The Council of Swiss living abroad has asked for an extension of the electronic vote. 17 of them were candidates in 2003, 44 in 2007; there will be 81 of them this year. Some political parties reserve seats for expatriates. Their vote differs generally from that of the Swiss living in the Helvetic Confederation itself. They mainly vote for the Socialist Party, followed by the Free Democratic Party, the Greens, then the Swiss People's Party and finally the Christian Democrats. These results explain why the socialists grant so much attention to the Swiss living abroad. Christian Levrat's party wants to guarantee their representation by granting them the status of being the 27th canton and by reserving 2 seats on the Council of States. The socialists have launched a petition to facilitate their participation via the internet and are presenting expat candidates in several cantons.

Will the Swiss People's Party continue its Ascension?

The UDC/SVP has set the goal of winning one third of the Swiss electorate. To do this its candidates have signed a triple commitment on three points: "We do not want to join the EU, we want to stop mass immigration and we want to expulse foreign criminals." The heart of its programme differs from the one it had in 2007 which included a reduction of State spending and a reduction in taxes. "The UDC/SVP wants to turn the electoral campaign into the trial of the Council of States, the chamber which is turning away from our country, which is taking a left turn and demonstrates a determined trend towards the EU," declares Toni Brunner. "Switzerland cannot offer a place to everyone and receive all of the poor in the world," reads the party's manifesto. "There has been too much immigration in Switzerland. It makes our rents go up, overloads our transport system and puts wages under pressure," stresses Christoph Blocher. "Over the last five years there has been a net immigration rate equal to a town the size of Zurich. It is leading to pressure on our infrastructures, trains and roads. Unfortunately we have removed the mechanisms that allowed us to regulate immigration," maintains Toni Brenner. The UDC/SVP which is an anti-European party is against immigration and is economically liberal – its slogan "The Swiss vote UDC/SVP" supports the re-introduction of border controls and that of immigrant contingents that are strictly linked to the work that is available, a system that was applied in Switzerland before the agreement on the free movement of workers signed with EU (and which did not reduce the number of immigrants in the country). "The more people there are in Switzerland, the more the State needs nurses and teachers. In a way immigrants come to Switzerland to take care of other immigrants," says Toni Brunner, regretting that immigrants work in the social, administrative, healthcare and teaching sectors and not in industry.

The Strategies of the Parties in the Centre

The Free Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Party have the same goal: to retain their two respective seats on the Federal Council. "Whether we win or lose we will remain the third party in Switzerland," declared Vincenzo Pedrazzini, head of the Free Democratic Party's campaign, who is often considered as the successor to the present leader, Fulvio Pelli. "The Free Democratic Party is always held responsible for everything, we are still seen as the mainstay of the State but this is false, we are no longer that. Today it is the Swiss People's Party; with its 30% in the National Council it should take on this role but it does not do it because it still presents itself as an opposition party," he added. Hence he has made sure that there is a distance between his party and the UDC/SVP with whom he say he "really has little in common" and whom he accuses of "blaming foreigners for everything." Fulvio Pelli has condemned the UDC/SVP's isolationism which "intends to put Switzerland in a bubble and go back on agreements that are vital to our prosperity." These positions are not to the taste of all of the party's members. Pierre Weiss, the party's Vice-President for example supports an alliance with of the Free Democratic Party and the Swiss People's Party. In his opinion his party cannot do without the support of the hard right.

In the last federal elections in 2007 the Free Democratic Party signed an agreement with the Swiss People's Party in eight cantons, which upset some of its electorate. This year the two parties are standing separately even though they might sign some local agreements. The Free Democratic Party hopes to assert its own values; "The more you adopt extreme positions, the more difficult it is to create alliances. This is the price paid by the Swiss People's Party for a more radical stance which brought it votes," analyses Pascal Sciarini, a political expert from the University of Geneva who adds "the Free Democratic Party has everything to gain from relinquishing its follow-my-leader attitude and play its own cards, it is a question of survival."

The Free Democratic Party wants to distinguish itself from the Christian Democratic Party; "We do not need a rapprochement with the Christian Democratic Party either," declared Vincenzo Pedrazzini. The creation of the Conservative Democratic Party in 2008 and the rise of the Green-Liberal Party have changed power relations on the centre-right. Christian Democratic leader, Christophe Darbellay suggested, in order to counter a loss of ground by the party and to provide new impetus to the centre, that a holding in the centre should be created to rally the Green-Liberals and the Conservative Democratic Party around the Christian Democratic Party. The Evangelical Party (PEV/EVP) answered favourably to this initiative.

Christophe Darbellay says he does not understand why the Free Democratic Party wants to distinguish itself at all costs, since his party shares "80% of common ground" with the FDP. "It is a mistake and a missed opportunity. The Free Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Party have always maintained an informal, but historical relationship. This is how Switzerland was built but the free democrats prefer a rapprochement with the UDC/SVP," he added. Urs Schwaller, leader of the Christian Democratic Party's Parliamentary group said that the Free Democratic Party had to choose between the UDC/SVP and a constructive centre. "If it cannot identify with the policy of the centre then its second seat on the Federal Council will come under discussion," he said. "Our place is on the right," answered Fulvio Pelli.
Some political analysts perceive in Christophe Darbellay's proposition to create a holding for the centre, a strategy on the part of the Christian Democratic Party to recover the seat held by Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (BDP) on the Federal Council.

Christophe Darbellay set 17% of the vote as the goal for his party in the federal elections. He says he is certain that his party will remain the leading force on the Council of States. Olivier Mewly, an historian at the University of Geneva denounces "the inability of the Free Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Party to see the problems facing society. "People like to be governed in the centre but not by the centre," he says.

The Green-Liberal Party (GLP/VL) is taking part in the federal elections for the second time. It will be standing in 15 of the 26 cantons. The party sets itself apart from the Greens in that it does not share the same economic beliefs. As its name suggests it supports economic liberalism. "Ecology and economy are not incompatible," indicates Sandra Gurtner-Oesch, the party's secretary general. The Green-Liberals who have just launched their first popular initiative on replacing VAT by a tax on renewable energies, is targeting eight seats in the National Council which would enable them to have a parliamentary group (five members minimum).

And what about the left?

"Our aim is to make progress in both chambers," indicates Christian Levrat, leader of the Socialist Party. More united than the right, the left is struggling to position itself with regard to immigration, whilst polls show that some of its electorate are concerned about rising rents, and the decrease in wages, due to competition on the part of foreign labour. "The free movement of people has led to economic growth but this benefits only a few. Most of the population is especially affected by the disruption caused by this growth in terms of transport, housing and employment. If we want to maintain free movement we have to act in these sectors by stepping up compensatory measures," declared the Deputy Chair of the Socialist Party Rudolf Strahm (PSS/SPS) who has readily criticised the "negative effects of permeable borders." Conversely during the celebration of the National Day on 1st August the President of the Helvetic Confederation Micheline Calmy-Rey vaunted the merits of an open, optimistic, tolerant Switzerland and yet at the same time she said that she "understood the fears of her fellow countrymen."
"The problem is that the socialists will never be credible on themes that the UDC/SVP has become expert in. There is nothing to gain by the party on this issue. No one, especially its electorate, is expecting it to act on this. Contrary to social policy on which its positions are understood, patriotism, migration and youth violence are not federating issues for its electorates in popular wage earning milieus and also amongst the middle classes, who are tempted by the UDC/SVP," analyses political analyst Yannis Papadopoulos.

Just one month before the election the Socialist Party is in the lead in the campaign due to the rise of economic themes (crisis of the strong franc, the population's concern about rising unemployment etc.) "For everyone, without privileges" is the party's slogan as it fights for the introduction of minimum salaries. The socialists repeat that if foreigners and the Swiss stood on an equal footing in terms of wages, employers would employ the Swiss. Cédric Wermuth, the Party's Deputy Chair qualified the UDC/SVP as "the billionaires' party" and accused it of neglecting real issues, such as wages for example.
On August 1st last the President of the Helvetic Confederation Micheline Calmy-Rey also attacked the high salaries earned by top executives.

The Ecologist Party-Greens (PES/GPS) want win their first seat on the Federal Council. However this must not, on any account, occur to the detriment of the Socialist Party, since this would allow the right to hold the ecologists to ransom. The Greens hope to increase their seats on the Council of States and rise to the 6 seat threshold. To do this the party has to win at least 10% of the vote.
The ecologists are counting on their message of opposition to nuclear power. They are suggesting the abandonment of nuclear power by 2029. Environmental issues which were at the forefront just a few weeks ago have now been surpassed by socio-economic issues. The Greens are extremely critical about the present financial system, based, in their opinion, on speculation, which they hope will be challenged.

The federal elections on 23rd October should not lead to any major change in terms of political power relations. According to the most recent poll by gfs.berne, the UDC/SVP is due to win with 28% of the vote, followed by the PSS/SPS with 20.5%, the PRD/FDP, 15.6% and the PDC/CVP 14.5%.The PES/GPS is due to win 9.5%, the GLP/VL 4.5% and the PDB 3.1%
Those close to the PSS/SPS are the most motivated (65% of them say they are ready to go and vote for their party) ahead of the UDC/SVP supporters (55%). However less than half of the PRD/FDP supporters (45%) say they will vote.

Source : Internet Site internet of the Federal Statistics Office

Source : Internet Site internet of the Federal Statistics Office
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