Election Preview: Switzerland 2011

Federal elections will be held in Switzerland on October 23, 2011. Beyond Switzerland, October 23 will be a pretty fascinating superwahltag with some great elections in Tunisia, Argentina and Bulgaria. In Switzerland, all 200 members of the National Council (the lower house) and all 46 members of the Council of States (the upper house) are up for reelection.

The Swiss Federal Political System

Switzerland’s unique variant of representative liberal democracy sets it apart from its European neighbors and indeed in the entire world. Switzerland is a federal state modeled around the United States, but two elements make it unique: its form of semi-direct democracy in which voters play a much more influent and powerful role in everyday politics, and its consociational model of governance (shared with Northern Ireland these days). As a semi-direct democracy, Swiss voters can force a referendum on any legislation passed by a legislature and through popular initiatives can amend the constitution.

Federal legislative power in Switzerland is vested in the bicameral Federal Assembly, which is made up of two houses with equal powers. The National Council, like the U.S. House of Representatives represents cantons proportionally to their population (to a certain extent). The Council of States, like the U.S. Senate represents cantons equally (or close to it). In the National Council, each one of Switzerland’s 26 cantons is guaranteed at least one member and additional members based on its population. Like the American House, the number of members is now capped at 200. The most populated canton, Zurich, elects 34 member. There are, roughly 36,000 voters for each member. Appenzell Innerrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Glarus, Nidwald and Obwald elect only one member. In the Council of States, the 20 full cantons elects two members. The old half-cantons (usually cantons which have been split in half) of Obwald, Nidwal, Basel-Landschaft, Basel-Stadt, Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden elect only one councillor.

In the National Council, those small cantons electing only member use a pretty straight-forward FPTP (‘majoritarian’) system. In the cantons of Uri, Glarus and both Appenzells, the vote is open ended in that the voter may write in any candidate of his choice. In the other cantons electing only one members, there is a candidacy deadline. The other cantons which elect two or more members use proportional representation, which certainly isn’t as straightforward. In a typical ‘big’ canton, each party usually presents its list of candidates – usually one name for every seat, but some parties like to run the same person for more than one seat to capitalize on their chances of election (or not run candidates for every seat). But beyond that, in a lot of cases, the major parties usually have more than one list: for example, in a lot of cantons, you find a “Party X” list but also “Party X – Youth Section” list. Different party lists may then coalesce together (apparentements) to be counted as a single list when votes are counted. Within the apparentements, there can be sous-apparentements where the lists of the same party unite to increase their individual chances of obtaining seats within a wider coalesced list. The CiviCampus website, available in the four official languages, has an animation of how voting works in the proportional system.

Party lists are open lists. Prior to the election, each voter is sent pre-printed party lists with the names of all candidates on the party’s list. The voter has a whole array of possibilities. He/she can deposit this pre-printed ballot as is in the provided envelope, and each candidate on the list will receive one vote and the party as a whole will receive as many votes as there are open seats (example: in a 5-seat canton, there are 5 candidates: if the list is not modified, each candidate gets one 1 vote and the party overall gets a sum of 5 votes). The voter can also strike out a candidate’s name: the candidate will not receive an individual vote, but the party itself will receive an ‘at-large’ party vote. A voter can also strike out a candidate’s name on the list and replace that candidate with another of the candidates on the same list (cumuler in French): that candidate would thus get an extra vote out of that ballot while another candidate would receive no votes. A voter, however, may not make his ballot so that a candidate gets more than two individual votes. Panachage is also allowed, meaning that a voter can strike out a candidate and replace him/her with a candidate from another list: thus the candidate’s votes will be shared between two or more parties overall. A voter may also strike out names, panacher and cumuler all at once! Voters also receive, prior to the election, a blank ballot. The voter may write a party’s name and at least one candidate’s name on it (from any party) – if a voter has 5 votes in the 5-seat canton, he/she can write the names of, say, 3 candidates – each candidate will get one vote and the remaining two votes the voter has are given to the party at-large. If the voter writes only the names of candidates on the blank ballot but no party, if he/she does not use up all 5 votes then he/she would not use all votes. The website mentioned also explains how the elections officials may correct certain ballots with minor errors. Specific rules do vary from canton to canton.

The Council of States is generally elected alongside the National Council, and usually elected through majority votes. In general, a candidate needs an absolute majority to win or a runoff is organized 3-5 weeks later depending on cantonal law. The canton of Jura, and, starting this year, Neuchâtel, elect their members through proportional representation. The canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden elects its sole member in a popular assembly (the Landsgemeinde, one of the last remaining vestiges of direct democracy) prior to the election. This year, the canton of Nidwald elected its sole member unopposed. Specific electoral laws and regulations vary from canton to canton. Because of the different electoral system which favours parties with a larger ‘vote potential’, the Council of States has tended to see small parties (outside government) and the two most ‘extreme’ governing parties (SP and SVP) being weaker than in the National Council at the benefit of the centrist parties.

The federal executive is formed by the Federal Council. The Federal Council has seven members, elected individually by the Federal Assembly. Each member is responsible for a specific cabinet department dealing with a policy area which falls within the federal government’s jurisdiction. One member is also elected for the ceremonial revolving one-year office of President of the Confederation. The Federal Council is run by the principle of collegiality, thus besides the largely ceremonial President there is no “Prime Minister” or leading head of government. The other principle which has truly defined Swiss politics is the “magic formula”, in use since 1959 and modified in 2003. The “magic formula” guarantees for the proportional representation of the four main political forces in Switzerland. Between 1959 and 2003, the Socialists, Radicals and Christian Democrats held two seats each with the final seat going to the agrarians (SVP). In 2003, the Christian Democrats lost a seat to the SVP.

Unlike in other liberal democracies, majority rule is not the overarching principle here. Rather, the overarching principle in Swiss politics is concordance or compromise. The vast cultural, linguistic, religious and economic differences which exist in Switzerland have played a role in compelling political actors to adopt this style of consociationalism. All four “governing parties” seek common ground over some sort of compromise in all legislation, both to satisfy all political parties involved but also protect against potential popular rejection through referendum by satisfying social actors and wider networks. The “magic formula”, which, as we’ll explore is increasingly compromised these days, has nonetheless given Switzerland half a century of remarkable political stability, built national unity and protected Swiss democracy from the temporary irrationality of voters. However, the whole system being built on the bases of concordance has not encouraged vibrant political debate and turned most governing parties into boring centrist parties. Parties’ ideological markers are increasingly unclear, and Swiss politics is marked by remarkable political immobility. Furthermore, for all the talk of the “vibrancy” of Swiss democracy because of referendums and semi-direct democracy, Switzerland has some of the lowest voter turnouts in Europe. There is both an “election overload” and a general perception that nothing really changes and that voting is useless. Less than half of eligible voters actually consistently participate in Swiss democracy.

The powers of the legislature to pass laws is subject to popular control, a unique type of “checks and balances” with the people being a level of government to itself. 50,000 citizens or 8 cantons can force a referendum on any bill passed in the last 100 days. Between 1874 and 1997, only about 7% of the laws actually were subjected to a referendum, and about half of those where ratified by voters. The threat of a referendum has an indirect effect on the legislative process, pressuring the government and political actors to reach compromise to prevent a referendum. Conservatives also appreciate the referendum option as a bulwark against anything which goes to far in their eyes. 100,000 citizens may also draft a constitutional amendment (popular initiative) and force a referendum on it. Again, while only a tiny handful out of the hundreds of initiatives have been approved, they are also an indirect effect on the legislative process in that they bring to political limelight issues which were until then not in the realm of political debate.

Evolution of the % vote for the 'big four' and the Greens, 1919-2007 (1939 excluded)

Swiss Political Parties and Ideologies

Swiss political parties are organized firstly on a cantonal basis, an impact of Swiss federalism. Though parties have been increasingly centralized and homogenized in recent years, Swiss parties are both less centralized and less professionalized than other European party systems. Cantonal sections remain the bedrock of the parties themselves and the cantonal sections are independent entities. In the past, cantonal sections have taken positions or acted in a way which was rather out of sync with the federal party. Cantonal sections often take the role of factions in other European party systems: a certain cantonal section may be ideologically different from the federal party, and they often are the bases for party splits. For example, the Liberal Party and the Free Democrats (Radicals) merged in 2009, but the Liberals and Radicals in Geneva merged only in 2011 and in Basel-Stadt the two parties remain separate from one another. Because politics is really played at a cantonal level, there is no dominant party boss as in other countries and only a few party leaders have a national image, often because of their strong individual personality. Party leaders are, on the whole, pretty unimportant or certainly not as important as in other European countries.

Switzerland emerged as a federal country with a central government worthy of its name only in 1848. Besides an ill-fated attempt at centralization imposed by the French in the form of the Helvetic Republic, Switzerland until 1848 was a confederation of independent states (cantons) which were linked much more by individual treaties rather than by the very weak central government. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the European powers recognized Switzerland’s neutrality and encouraged the reconstruction of independent Switzerland upon confederal lines. The Federal Pact of 1815 did not create a state, but rather a confederation of cantons with their own laws, currencies, tariff systems, militias, policy spheres and political systems (Neuchâtel was a Prussian-ruled monarchy, a few cantons were direct democraties, others were limited democraties, others were aristocratic republics). Certainly the cantons didn’t kill each other anymore, but the central government had very little power – think Articles of Confederation in the United States. By the 1830s, the liberal ideas of political equality, universal suffrage, political and economic freedoms and anti-clericalism gained a foothold in the liberal Protestant cantons. Individual cantons, starting with Ticino (ironically a Catholic canton), “regenerated” their constitutions but attempts to reform the Federal Pact failed throughout the 1830s. Original attempts at reform had not been marked by sectarianism, but the anti-clerical mood of the 1840s fired up sectarian tensions between the Catholic and Protestant cantons. Liberals were progressively replaced by the more left-wing radicals, who were stridently anti-clerical and largely Protestant. In reaction to mounting tensions between radical Protestants and conservative Catholics, seven Catholic cantons (Lucerne, Uri, the two Unterwald half-cantons, Schwyz, Zug, Fribourg and Valais) formed the Sonderbund Pact in 1845 as a defensive pact against the mounting influence of the radicals.

By 1846, the radicals had gained power in a majority of cantons and through the Federal Diet they were in measure to pass a string of resolutions banning the Sonderbund pact, calling for a type of constituent assembly and expelling Jesuit orders from the country. In November 1847, tensions boiled over into civil war between the Catholic Sonderbund and the federal state. The Sonderbund rapidly defeated, and the radicals in full control, a new federal constitution was adopted in 1848, under radical guidance, creating the modern Swiss federal state. The cantons lost their autonomy in matters such as customs duties or external trade, while power was centralized (comparatively speaking) in the hands of the federal government. New constitutions were introduced in 1874 and 1999.

2007 election results

SVP-UDC 28.9% (+2.2%) winning 62 seats (+7) and 7 state councillors (-1)
SP-PS 19.5% (-3.8%) winning 43 seats (-9) and 9 state councillors (nc)
FDP-PRD 15.8% (-1.6%) winning 31 seats (-5) and 12 state councillors (-2)
CVP-PDC 14.5% (+0.1) winning 31 seats (+3) and 15 state councillors (nc)
GPS-PES 9.6% (+2.2%) winning 20 seats (+6) and 2 state councillors (+2)
PEV 2.4% (+0.2%) winning 2 seats (-1)
LPS-PLS 1.9% (-0.3%) winning 4 seats (nc)
glp-pel 1.4% (+1.4%) winning 2 seats (+2) and 1 state councillor (+1)
EDU-UDF 1.3% (nc) winning 1 seat (-1)
PST 0.7% (nc) winning 1 seat (-1)
Lega 0.6% (+0.2%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PCS-CSP 0.4% (+0.1%) winning 1 seat (nc)

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP or UDC) is Switzerland’s largest party and also the most controversial party. The SVP finds its roots in the post-World War I agrarian movement in German Switzerland which split off from the Radicals in Bern in 1917 to create the first agrarian party, which became the Party of Farmers, Artisans and Independents in 1936. In 1971, the agrarian party merged with two cantonal sections of the small Democratic Party, a social-liberal party, to form the SVP. The Swiss agrarian movement has always been on the right of the Swiss political spectrum, having vocally expressed anti-socialist and nationalist sentiments since its foundation in 1917. A member of the bourgeois bloc, the SVP and its agrarian predecessor were the smallest member of this bloc and the smallest party in the Federal Council, with one member between 1930 and 2003. Between the mid-1930s and 1991, the SVP won roughly 11% of the vote. However, starting in the 1980s the SVP came under the influence of the Zurich section, led by the right-wing populist entrepreneur Christoph Blocher who moved the party to the right with emphasis on increasingly popular issues such as asylum, EU membership and Swiss neutrality. The impact of the SVP’s move to the right under the influence of the Zurich section was immediate and successful. In 1995, the party won 15%. In 1999, it became the largest party with 23% and scoring a record-high gain in vote. In 2003 and 2007, it again improved its showing to 27% and 29% – some of the strongest showings for a single party in the fragmented political landscape of Switzerland. The SVP’s first victims were smaller far-right parties such as the Swiss Democrats or the Freedom Party, but in recent years the traditional parties of the centre (Radicals and Christian Democrats) have both suffered. These parties centre-right voters punished them for their perceived shift to the left and their shift towards internationalist (pro-European integration) positions. The party has generally been at the centre of most political controversies in Switzerland. In 2007, its “kick out the black sheep” poster made international headlines. Its campaigns for the deportation of ‘foreign criminals’ and the ban on minarets opened it to accusations of racism and xenophobia. The SVP rather claims it fights for an independent and neutral Switzerland, against crime and against high taxes.

The SVP’s unchecked growth forced a revision of the “magic formula” in place since 1959 in 2003. The SVP’s Blocher, one of Switzerland’s most controversial politicians, was elected to the Federal Council in 2003 at the expense of the Christian Democrats. However, in 2007, the other parties in the Federal Assembly preferred to elect Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf of the moderate Grisons branch. When the SVP expelled the whole Grisons branch in 2008, a sign of the growing centralization of the SVP under the right-wing Zurich section and Blocher, the SVP was left with no seats in the Federal Council (the SVP’s other councillor, Samuel Schmid of the centrist Bern section, joined the dissidents). The SVP regained a seat on the Federal Council in 2009 when Schmid retired and was replaced by the SVP’s Ueli Maurer. The SVP claims that it is entitled to a second seat in government.

The agrarians were founded in German Switzerland and found most of its support in predominantly German Protestant cantons such as Bern. Traditionally weak in French Switzerland (Romandie), the SVP’s rapid growth since 1991 has also affected French Switzerland where the SVP (known in French as UDC) became the largest party in the cantons of Vaud and Geneva (but only with 22% or so). Only in Italophone Ticino has the SVP been unable to build a base – largely because of the competition of a quasi-identical regional party.

The SVP’s slogan this year is basically Swiss people vote SVP, a delightfully amusing statement which means that those who don’t vote SVP aren’t Swiss.

The Socialist Party (SP or PS) is Switzerland’s second largest party. The SP was founded in 1888 and has usually been Switzerland’s largest party, between the 1930s and the 1980s and for a stretch in the 1990s. Despite the SP’s growth in the interwar era, the fear of socialism in the wake of the 1918 general strike led the bourgeois parties to move closer together and exclude the SP from government until Ernst Nobs became the first SP federal councillor in 1943. During this time, the SP slowly abandoned its Marxist theses and progressively moderated its positions. Even when the party temporarily left government between 1955 and 1959, the SP kept its commitment to democratic ideals and its very anticommunist positions of the Cold War era. But the SP has struggled in the post-war era, split between a moderate (right-wing) faction and another pressuring the party to move closer to new social and political movements on the left. In the 1970s, a tack to the left (denouncing capitalism) helped it a bit but it fell badly in the 1980s. The relative proximity of the SP to new movements on its left or the desire to limit the growth of left-wing opponents such as the Greens might explain why the Socialists have taken a rather ‘green’ line on environmental issues or moved towards very pro-European positions. This hasn’t prevented internal dissensions and cantonal splits, or kept the party from falling into the contemporary trap of European social democratic parties, that is, a general lack of ideas besides being the largest anti-SVP party. Nonetheless, the SP has played a rather important role in the development of the Swiss welfare state and its political moderation guaranteed the success of the “magic formula” after 1959.

The SP has usually been stronger in French Switzerland than German Switzerland, and it performs best in Protestant areas – given that Catholic working-class voters have traditionally been well integrated into the Christian Democratic Party. But beyond this, the SP is a very urban party, in cities such as Zurich, Bern or Basel. The SP has been the largest party in all elections since 1919 in the canton of Neuchâtel, where the SP has a solid working-class base in the watchmaking centres of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle. Other bases outside urban areas include Solothurn, Schaffhausen and Glarus.

The SP’s slogan this year is something like for everyone, not for a few which is a boring empty political catchphrase which ought to be shunned.

The FDP.The Liberals (in French, PLR.Les Libéraux-Radicaux) is not Switzerland’s dominant party any longer, but it has had the most profound influence on Switzerland since 1848 of all parties. The Radicals, as they are known in French (they are rather known as ‘liberals’ in German), are the heirs of the political radicals of the 1830s who spearheaded the transformation of Switzerland from a confederation to a federal state by 1848. The Radicals drafted the 1848 and 1874 Constitutions, and, excluding their conservative Catholic rivals, they were the hegemonic party at all levels of the federal government during the nineteenth century (post-1848). Between 1848 and 1891, they held all seven seats in the Federal Council. They retained their majority in the Federal Council until 1943. Until the introduction of proportional representation in elections to the National Council in 1919, the Radicals were also the dominant party in the legislature. The radicals formed a political party in 1894, with the foundation of the FDP (PRD in French). The central role of the Radicals was somewhat lost with the introduction of PR in 1919 and the party’s place as a catch-all broker was weakened with the loss of the party’s left-wing working-class faction to the SP and the loss of the party’s right-wing rural faction to the agrarians. However, it remained one of Switzerland’s top two parties up until the SVP’s eruption into the political landscape in the 1990s; and the Radicals played a major role alongside the SP in the development of Switzerland’s post-war welfare state model and the success of the “magic formula”.

Ideologically, the growth of the SP in the interwar era pushed the Radicals closer to their former enemies (the conservatives) to form a bourgeois anti-socialist bloc which definitely aligned the Radicals with the centre-right. After taking a stridently neoliberal position starting in 1979, which temporarily stopped their decline, the Radicals have since moved back towards the centre though retaining economically liberal positions: tax cuts, deregulation, welfare reforms and a minimal state. Of the four major parties, the Radicals are pretty much the second most right-wing party after the SVP and they have tended to be the closest to the SVP of the three non-SVP governing parties. Yet, the Radicals are more internationalist and liberal than the isolationist conservative SVP.

In 2009, the FDP merged with the smaller Liberal Party (LPS). The Liberals, the right-wing faction of the broader Swiss radical-liberal movement, were founded in the 1890s and were a small liberal group to the right of the Radicals and generally dominant in French Protestant cantons such as Geneva or Vaud. The Liberals generally took more stridently free-market positions than the FDP while the FDP was embracing the social market economy, and in their early days they generally opposed the more radical ideas of the Radicals preferring, for example, limited censitary suffrage to universal suffrage. The Radicals were in turn opposed to their left by the social-liberal Democratic Party, more working-class rather than urban bourgeois in its support, and critical in the early days of the Radical’s machine control over politics. In the twenty-first century, the progressive weakening of both the Liberals and the FDP with the rapid growth of the SVP forced the two parties to move past historical differences to form a common party, known as the FDP.The Liberals in German and English. The Liberals won a record-low 1.8% in 2007, while the FDP has been in constant decline since 1979 from 24% to 16%.

The radical movement was born in the Protestant cantons of Switzerland the Protestant cantons, both German and French, have remained the base of the Radical Party for most of its existence – although this is certainly not a universal rule. For example, the Radicals have always held Uri’s sole seat in the National Council despite Uri being a Catholic Sonderbund canton.

The FDP’s slogan is out of love for Switzerland. How sweet.

The Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP or PDC) is the political heir of the old conservative Catholic movement in Switzerland, historically the arch-rivals of the radical (Protestant) movement. The conservatives defended a traditional vision of a conservative, rural and decentralized federal Switzerland with a strong role for the Catholic Church, in contrast to the radicals whose vision was that of a modern, democratic and secular centralized Switzerland with the ‘reactionary’ Catholic Church shunned and shut out of power. The radical vision carried the day over the Catholic minority, and the Catholic conservatives found themselves shut out from power starting in 1848 and until at least 1891. But they remained a powerful opposition to the radical hegemony, with their base in the Sonderbund cantons of central Switzerland. In 1891, Joseph Zemp became the first non-radical member of the Federal Council and the Popular Conservative Party (as it was then known) gained a second seat in government in 1919 following the first proportional elections to the National Council. With a steady electorate (because of the solidness of the Catholic bloc vote) oscillating between 21 and 23%, the CVP (the name adopted by 1970) has been in constant decline since 1979 – from 22% to 14%. The CVP’s decline forced it to abandon its second seat in the Federal Council to the SVP, a second seat which the CVP currently disputes with the FDP. The CVP has lost a lot of votes to the SVP, which has really broken religious divides to appeal to equally conservative, rural, German Catholic voters in old CVP strongholds such as Schwyz, Unterwald or Zug.

As a Catholic party, the CVP has its base in the old Sonderbund cantons – in central Switzerland (except Uri, at the federal level) but also Valais, Fribourg, Jura and Appenzell Innerrhoden. In the cantons with a strong Catholic minority – Solothurn, Aargau, Saint-Gallen and Grisons – the CVP has always had a smaller minority position with Catholic voters. The CVP tried to expand its base in the 1960s, but despite this the CVP map pretty closely follows the map of Catholics in Switzerland and it performs very poorly in cantons with few Catholics. Similar to other Catholic parties in Europe, the CVP was quite a mass-party with a wide base of Catholic farmers, traders and workers. Working-class Catholics have been well integrated into Catholic unions and the CVP, which has struggled with a long opposition between conservatives/centrists and the Christian-social movement, more left-wing on economic issues. The former has generally dominated, but the CVP retains a significant Christian-social base outside Jura and Fribourg. This explains the CVP’s more interventionist (or ‘humanist’) economic policies, favouring ‘pro-family’ policies and the social market welfare policies. It is also pro-environment.

The CVP’s slogans rock: Success. Switzerland. SVP or the best – No Switzerland without us.

The Green Party of Switzerland (GPS or PES) is Switzerland’s largest opposition party. The Greens appeared in the mid-to-late 1970s, and gradually united different cantonal sections to create a nationally structured party. Originally starting out on the gauche de la gauche, the Greens – especially in German Switzerland where their growth was slower – were hurt by competition from other parties such as the green/social-liberal Alliance of Independents (LdU) or the New Leftish Progressive Organizations of Switzerland (POCH). In 1987, the Greens, buoyed by events such as Chernobyl, won 9 seats and 5.2% of vote. After a trough in the 1990s, the Greens have started creeping up on the back of the ‘big four’ winning 9.6% in the 2007 elections. In the long term, the Greens could definitely threaten the hegemonic positions of the ‘big four’ governing parties. Their growth in recent years throws the long-term stability of the “magic formula” into doubt because, if they keep gaining strength, the Greens will have a very strong claim to a seat in the Federal Council especially if the old parties like the FDP or CVP keep falling apart.

The Swiss Greens are rather left-wing and ‘deep green’ in their political orientation. They want out of nuclear energy ASAP – Switzerland will be progressively withdrawing from nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima incident. It wants the country to cut its CO2 emissions by 30%, a “green economy” and it favours a very liberal immigration policy and a very pro-European internationalist foreign policy. In this regards, staunchly left-wing, environmentalist and socially liberal it is the arch-rival of the SVP – the two hate each other with a passion. The Greens, however, have had troubles hesitating between a centrist orientation and a very left-wing orientation. In some cantons such as Bern or Basel-Stadt, there are in fact two cantonal sections which each represent one of these factions. As we’ll see, the division of the Greens could put a stop to their ambitions to overtake one of the ‘big four’ parties.

The Greens are, shockingly, a urban party. It does very well in the liberal French cantons of Geneva (16.4%) and Vaud (14.3%). In Zug, the Greens’ local referent, the Alternative-The Greens Zug, also has a surprisingly strong base: 17% in 2007.

Political positioning of all 200 deputies (source: Swiss government)

The Bourgeois Democratic Party (BDP or PBD) is a small party, but also a governing party with one seat in the Federal Council. The BDP, to put things succinctly, is a moderate split-off of the SVP. Even when the SVP was becoming apparently heavily dominated by Blocher’s right-wing populist faction operating out of Zurich, the agrarian-born party was pretty homogeneous and retained a strong centrist/agrarian wing especially in the canton of Bern and holding the SVP’s original seat in the Federal Council (since 1930). In the 2007 Federal Council election, the SP, CVP and Greens decided to unite to defeat the controversial Blocher and elected in his stead the SVP moderate Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf. Widmer-Schlumpf accepted her election despite the SVP’s opposition. Her Grisons section unwilling to expel her, the SVP national leadership expelled the whole Grisons section which became the base of the new BDP. The SVP’s Bern section also defected in good part to the BDP, including the SVP’s other Federal Councillor, Samuel Schmid, meaning that the small BDP held two seats in the Federal Council between 2008 and 2009 – when Schmid retired and everybody agreed to elect the SVP’s Ueli Maurer.

The BDP opposes the SVP’s more right-wing positions on immigration and asylum. It is more internationalist (but anti-EU), more environmentally-friendly and more liberal on social issues. The BDP has ironically hurt the FDP and CVP more than the SVP. In cantonal elections in Bern, where the BDP emerged as the third-largest party with 16%, the SVP didn’t suffer a lot – rather the FDP lost votes. It remains to be seen if the BDP can really find a spot for itself outside the cantons of Bern, Glarus and Grisons where it has a strong institutional base. Electoral experience so far outside those three cantons don’t indicate that the BDP has managed to make itself a spot. The ability of Widmer-Schlumpf to win reelection in December to the Federal Council is one of the big questions of this election. It remains to be seen whether the centre-left parties and the CVP will prefer Widmer-Schlumpf or will privilege institutional stability and dump her in favour of a SVP candidate.

The Green Liberal Party (glp or pvl) is the other newcomer to the scene. The Greens, as we have seen, have been divided between centrists and left-wingers. In 2004, the Greens expelled one of their parliamentarians from Zurich. In 2007, the Green Liberals were founded, operating out of Zurich. It won 1.4% and 3 seats in the 2007 election, winning 7% in Zurich. Verena Diener won a seat in the Council of States representing Zurich, defeating a SVP candidate in the runoff. The glp’s ideology sets it apart from other green parties in Europe, the bulk of which are either markedly or rather left-leaning. The glp seeks to mix a free market economy and economic liberalism with a environmental sustainability. It support tax incentives and other free market incentives to sustainability rather than regulations, heavy taxation or bans. This generally aligns the glp with the centre-right and liberalism rather than the left or other European green parties. It could be similar, in some regards, to the Canadian Greens.

The glp is very strong in Zurich, where it won 10% in the last cantonal elections, and in other German-speaking cantons but it has had trouble setting up a base for itself in Romandie.

The Evangelical People’s Party (PEV) is one of the only small parties to not have been doomed with death: the PEV has always been a small party, never winning more than 2.5% in any election, but a political fixture since at least 1919. Originally, the PEV was, in Protestant cantons, the voice of the non-Radical socially conservative minority. The EVP is conservative on social hot-button issues such as abortion, but it is far more progressive on environmental and economic issues. It supports, for example, family-oriented policies, fair wages, solidarity with low-income people, high childcare benefits. It forms a common parliamentary group with the CVP and glp in the Federal Assembly. The PEV, however, has only a weak but rather stable base. It is really only present in German Protestant cantons, and is a major political force only in Bern, Aargau and Zurich (more or less).

The Federal Democratic Union (EDU or UDF) is another small, Protestant Christian conservative party. Founded in 1975, the EDU is, like the PEV, socially conservative but it gives much more emphasis to those kind of issues than the PEV. It describes itself as a party “defending the values of the Bible” and “judeo-Christian values”. It claims to be more left-wing on economic issues, though not as much as the PEV. The EDU is strong only in Bern, Thurgau and Zurich and Aargau to a lesser extent.

The Lega dei Ticinesi (LT, ‘League of Ticinians’) is a small regional party which operates only in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. The LT’s raison-d’etre is not any kind of separatism or regional nationalism, but rather as a regionalist anti-state protest party opposed to the ‘corrupt particracy’ of Ticino. Founded in 1991 by the local entrepreneur Giuliano Bignasca, it has built a populist rhetoric based around opposition to corrupt party establishments, clientelism, European integration, environmental protection, asylum policies, ‘foreigner’ welfare leeches and high taxes. The Lega did very well in its first years, winning 23.5% in Ticino during the 1991 federal elections but saw support fall to 8% in 2003 before increasing to 14% in 2007. The Lega is similar to and allied with the SVP, though the SVP operates in Ticino (but is weak: 9% in 2007, 5.5% in the 2011 cantonal elections). The Lega seems to be in an upsurge these days: it won a record-high 22.8% in the 2011 cantonal elections, only a few points behind the FDP.

The Christian Social Party (PCS or CSP) is a small party, founded only in 1997, but heir to a older Christian-social tradition within the Catholic movement and the CVP in Switzerland. The Christian-social movement has sought to apply the Christian values of solidarity and tolerance to the political sphere, favouring left-wing economic policies and vibrant welfare measures and social solidarity. The Christian-social tendency of the CVP had remained within the party despite being increasingly marginalized by the more right-wing faction of the CVP, but by 1997 the PCS was founded by the Christian-social faction of the CVP in Jura (more recently), Fribourg, Lucerne and Zurich. The PCS, which cooperates with the Greens and SP, is liberal on social issues, and left-wing on economic and environmental issues. It supports a liberal immigration policy and an internationalist foreign policy. However, the PCS is really only present in Jura and Fribourg with any significant strength.

The Swiss far-left is a bit confusing. The oldest party is the Swiss Party of Labour  (PST/POP-PdAS), founded in 1944 as an alliance of the Communist Party, left-wing socialists and SP dissidents. After winning 5% in 1947, the PST entered a period of political isolation (in the Cold War context) and electoral decline from 5% to less than 1% (0.7%) in 2007. The PST, which is often understood as being Switzerland’s communist party, is really only strong in the watchmaking towns of Neuchâtel and parts of Vaud – two cantons were it known as the POP (alongside Bern and Jura). It is something allied to solidaritéS, a far-left anticapitalist party whose base seems to be Geneva. However, the new fad in the far-left seems to be The Left, a party founded in 2009 by various ‘alternative lists’, communists, three POP sections and three SolidaritéS sections. The party has also one seat in the National Council, elected for the PST in 2007.

The SVP’s growth has killed the previously vibrant Swiss far-right, which peaked at a combined 8% in 1991. The two biggest parties were the Swiss Democrats, founded in 1961 on an explicitly xenophobic platform about the “overpopulation” of the country due to immigration. The SD were behind some of the popular initiatives “against foreign overpopulation” in the 1960s and 1970s before taking a weird environmentalist position, but one backed by xenophobic theses (the foreigners are destroying our land, basically). The SD were killed by the growth of the SVP and lost its sole seat in 2007. The other main far-right movement was the Freedom Party, founded in 1985 as the “Motorists Party”. It was a right-wing populist movement against environmental protection, state interventionism and asylum policies. Again, it was killed by the SVP by 1999. The performance in Geneva of the Geneva Citizens Movement (MCG), which placed third with 14% in the 2009 cantonal elections in Geneva might be worth following. Geneva, despite its liberal reputation (which is still true), has a long little-known history of affection for populist right-wing parties, such as Vigilants in the 1960s-1980s and the MCG these days. Both these movements operate out of opposition to foreign (French and Italian) workers and residents in Geneva, claiming that their presence takes away Swiss jobs. They are also, similarly to the Lega, opponents of the so-called ‘particracy’.

Polling and the Federal Council

The last SSR barometre says:
SVP-UDC 29.3%
SP-PS 19.9%
FDP-PLR 15.2%
CVP-PDC 14.2%
GPS-PES 9.3%
glp-pel 4.9%
BDP-PBD 3.6%

The interactive prediction market (Wahlboerse) predicts a result of:
SVP-UDC 28.84% (-0.06%)
SP-PS 19.58% (+0.03%)
FDP-PLR 13.76% (-3.85%)
CVP-PDC 12.9% (-1.58%)
GPS-PES 9.54% (-0.05%)
glp-pel 5.55% (+4.12%)
BDP-PBD 4.31% (+4.31%)

The results, barring surprises, should be remarkably similar to those of 2007. The SVP is either going to fall back a bit or gain a bit, but it is unlikely that it will be scoring more huge gains as in 1999 or 2003. It is perhaps because the SVP has played it rather quiet this year: no big controversial ads out there about “black sheeps” and the like. The SP and the Greens are also both pretty stable, either a bit above or below their 2007 showings. The main shift is in the centre, where the main changes will be happening. The “old” parties – Radicals and CVP – will lose a small but significant part of their 2007 electorate to reach, in both cases, historic lows. The benefactors of these evolutions in the centre will, ironically, be new parties which do not have their roots in either party. The BDP and Green Liberals will be taking most of their new voters from these two centrist parties, from which they do not emanate but with which there is significant support and ideological overlap. In the BDP’s case, it will be interesting to measure its performance in both the three cantons where it holds its five seats (Bern, Grisons and Glarus) and where it has no apparent support or institutional base. In any case, the BDP’s relative success will not have any major impact on the SVP but rather on the old centrist parties. The ‘political centre’ (FDP-CVP-glp-BDP) will emerged stronger from this election, as will the ‘greens’ (GPS-glp) and the opposition parties.

A word on turnout: it was 48% in 2007. Turnout remains low by European standards but has increased constantly from a low of 42% in 1995 (SVP-effect?). With the election pretty boring and unlikely to produce major changes, will turnout fall back this year?

The more exciting election will be the December election of the Federal Council. The stability of Swiss politics because of the “magic formula” was challenged by the SVP’s eruption in the 1990s and 2000s, then by the success of the Greens in 2003 and 2007 and then by the growing dissonance between the SVP and its other three governing “partners” starting in 2007 with the election of Widmer-Schlumpf. This means that the SVP is now a bit of an “opposition” party within the government, and holds only one seat despite it weighing nearly 30% nationally (and the BDP, which also holds one seat, a mere 3-4%). The Greens are unlikely to succeed in their goal to enter government – they would need the support of the SP and CVP/glp/PEV groups to win, and that is unlikely as it would really screw up the balance of power. Then the other questions are whether or not the BDP’s Widmer-Schlumpf will win reelection and whether or not the FDP (after an historic low) will see its second seat threatened by either the SVP or CVP – both parties claiming a second seat. The fate of the BDP’s Widmer-Schlumpf depends on the behaviour of the SP and CVP, because it is likely that the FDP will back the SVP’s claim to a second seat (in return for SVP support for the FDP’s second seat?). The SP could back her over an SVP candidate, as could the Greens (who could also run one of their own). In a 2009 Federal Council by-election, the BDP had apparently talked about backing the CVP’s candidate for the FDP-held seat (the FDP’s Didier Burkhalter held the seat) in return for the CVP backing the BDP this year, but I don’t know what come out of that and where the CVP stands on allowing the BDP to hold its seat. I see it as unlikely that the BDP will hold on, given that it would be a major blow to the legitimacy of the government and to the stability of the “magic formula” to deny the SVP a seat which, from a neutral and totally objective perspective, it deserves given its weight and given the point of the “magic formula” – ignoring one’s view on the SVP. The CVP also wants to regain the seat it lost to the SVP in 2007, but I believe it understands that going against the SVP is not the way to go. If it wants a second seat, it needs to go against the FDP which will be the party which will probably lose the most this year. The fight between the CVP and FDP over which one of the two historic rival deserves a second seat will be the other question mark of this election, which, like every Federal Council renewal since 2003 promises to be remarkably fascinating!

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Posted on October 22, 2011, in Election Preview, Switzerland. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Do you have a hyperlink for the interesting pie “Political positioning of all 200 deputies (source: Swiss government)”?

  2. It’s from a nice PDF document put together by the government and apparently sent to all voters with additional blurbs by all parties on who they are. The PDF can be downloaded here: http://www.bk.admin.ch/themen/pore/nrw/index.html?lang=fr. In French, it’s called “Un menu épicé pour l’automne”.

    I don’t quite get how their liberal/conservative and left/right axis, because placing the Greens so far on the conservative side makes little sense. I would think it’s liberal vs. conservative economic issues (‘conservative’ being the welfare state status-quo?) and left vs. right on moral/asylum issues?

  1. Pingback: Schweiziska Folkpartiets bakgrund « Sverige idag

  2. Pingback: Switzerland 2011 « World Elections

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