Federal elections were held in Switzerland on October 23, 2011. All 200 members of the National Council and all 46 members of the Council of States were up for reelection. Together, these two chambers make up the Federal Assembly, Switzerland’s federal legislature. The Federal Assembly together elects the seven members of Switzerland’s government, the Federal Council. Swiss elections can’t see a government being “defeated” and replaced by another, because since 1959 Switzerland’s government has had the same make-up or close to it. I had covered the structure of Switzerland’s semi-direct consociational government structure as well as all the parties in a preview post here.
It doesn’t actually matter much in terms of realities of governance, but since 1991 Swiss politics have really been turned on its head as the hegemony of the ‘moderate’ forces: Socialists, liberals and Christian democrats was challenged by the upstart right-wing populist SVP which has gone from 11.9% support in 1991 to 28.9% in 2007, thus forcing the Christian democrats to lose a seat in the Federal Council in the SVP’s favour back in 2003. The SVP’s success stems from its ability to portray itself as a nationalist party which defends Swiss sovereignty, Swiss neutrality, Swiss interests and “real Swiss” people from the perceived dangers of internationalism, economic interventionism and above all ‘foreign criminals’ whose presence in Switzerland, they claim, threatens Swiss values and Swiss way of life. Obviously, the SVP is a very controversial party and its electoral ads have often been called xenophobic or racist. After the 2007 election, the SVP’s accession showed no signs of being checked: two SVP-led measures to ban minarets (2009) and to deport foreign criminals (2010) were approved by a majority of voters in referendums.
Turnout was 49.1%, which seems to be one of the highest turnouts since 1979 or something. This number, which seems low for voters in other countries, is pretty high for low-turnout Switzerland. The results for the National Council were as follows:
SVP-UDC 26.6% (-2.3%) winning 54 seats (-8)
SP-PS 18.7% (-0.8%) winning 46 seats (+3)
FDP.Liberals-PRL 15.1% (-2.6%) winning 30 seats (-5)
CVP-PDC 12.3% (-2.2%) winning 28 seats (-3)
Greens 8.4% (-1.2%) winning 15 seats (-5)
GLP-PEL 5.4% (+4%) winning 12 seats (+9)
BDP-PBD 5.4% (+5.4%) winning 9 seats (+9)
EVP-PEV 2% (-0.4%) winning 2 seats (nc)
EDU-UDF 1.3% (nc) winning 0 seats (-1)
Lega 0.8% (+0.2%) winning 2 seats (+1)
CSP-PCS 0.6% (+0.2%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PdAS-PST 0.5% (-0.2%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Sol 0.3% (-0.1%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SD-DS 0.2% (-0.3%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 2.3% (+0.5%) winning 1 seat (+1)
As expected, the results, at a glance, indicate remarkable political stability which is the norm, not the exception, in Switzerland (or at least was until the SVP turned it all on its head). The most significant result is that of the SVP, which has suffered its first major setback in over 20 years. The SVP’s vote had increased in all federal elections since 1991, but this year the party’s vote fell back by a statistically significant 2 percentage points. This is a pretty major setback for the SVP, which had really wanted to break the never-broken 30% barrier this year and was in a rather good position to do so throughout the last year or so. Part of the SVP’s decline comes from a larger than expected vote transfer between the SVP and the Bourgeois-Democrats (BDP), the moderate splinter of the SVP spearheaded by the SVP’s old moderate agrarian factions from Bern and Grisons. The BDP took away a large number of votes from the SVP in Grisons, where the BDP’s founding figure (federal councillor Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf) is from. The SVP’s vote fell 10% from 34.7% to 24.5%, while the BDP took 20.5%. The BDP had not, ironically, been predicted to hurt the SVP all that much but we apparently underestimated the size of the remnants of the moderate agrarian SVP in the party’s modern electorate. Another explanation for the SVP’s setback might be that it has hit the ceiling and, given how controversial and polarizing it is, it will struggle to go any higher than 29% or so. To my knowledge, the SVP has never consistently polled over 30% federally. Finally, the economy (which, this being Switzerland, is doing pretty well) and a high Swiss franc (and thus inflation) was an important issue in this campaign. The SVP’s strength with voters is not on economic issues (where the Socialists or Radicals play better) but rather on asylum/immigration/nationality issues which were big in 2007 but not as big this year. Despite the SVP’s setback, 26.6% is still a high mark for any party in Switzerland and this only places the SVP back at its 2003 levels, which were already pretty good for the party.
The SVP (UDC) was not the biggest party in any French-majority canton this year, unlike in 2007 when the party had topped the poll with 21-22% in Vaud and Geneva. The party’s vote generally held better in the French cantons, because the BDP is inexistent there, but the vote for the other two major parties in those areas – Socialists and Radical-Liberals – coalesced better this year. The party, finally, broke through on its own in Ticino, the Italian-majority canton where the SVP’s rise thus far had been checked by the regionalist right-wing Lega. Despite the Lega doing very well this year (17.5%, up from 14% in 2007), the SVP also managed to increase its support by 1% (8.7% to 9.7%) and win its first seat ever in the canton which had until now been the SVP’s only weak spot.
The Socialists suffered another setback, winning 18.7% which is their lowest vote share since 1919. But the SP gained 3 seats. The SP was unable to benefit from the issue of the high Swiss franc and rising inflation, which should have helped the party. The SP gained in strength in Geneva, Vaud and Fribourg but generally lost votes elsewhere. In Fribourg, the SP’s win marked the first time this Catholic Sonderbund canton had not voted for the CVP and the second time since 1919 that any Sonderbund canton has voted Socialist. But the SP lost Neuchâtel for the first time since 1919.
The FDP’s merger with the Liberals (1.9% in 2007) wasn’t enough to right the sinking ship. The new FDP-Liberal outfit won 15.1%, the worst result for the Swiss radical-liberal movement since 1919 and a result which is even below that of the FDP alone in 2007. In Ticino, the FDP’s leader, Fulvio Pelli, did not even win reelection. In part, the FDP was one of the victims of the new BDP, which took more voters from the centrist parties than from the SVP. In Bern, where the BDP polled 15%, the FDP’s vote fell from 15% to 8.7% this year. The success of the Green Liberals, whose electorate overlaps with that of the FDP in large part, also hurt the party. The new FDP-Liberal party polled better than the FDP alone in Romandie, the Liberal Party’s base, but in Geneva and Vaud the showing of the FDP, while not insignificant, falls quite a bit below that of the combined 2007 vote of the FDP and Liberals – and this is in cantons where the BDP is inexistent and even the Green Liberals pretty weak (3% in Geneva, 5% in Vaud). Only in Neuchâtel, where the Socialist dominance since 1919 had a lot to do with the division of the bourgeois vote between Liberals and FDP (PRD), did the Liberal vote fold neatly into the FDP vote – both parties had polled 13% each in 2007, and this year they won 26.9%. It also helps that the Green Liberals didn’t run and the BDP only won 1.5%…
The CVP also broke the record for worst electoral performance since 1919 with a paltry 12%. The electoral decrepitude of the radicals and the Catholics is striking, when you consider that these two movements are the oldest political movements in Switzerland. The CVP did poorly pretty much everywhere, losing Fribourg for the first time since 1919 and winning less than 40% in Valais. It benefited from the absence of a Christian-social list in Jura, a list which had won 11% in 2007 but did not run this year, allowing the Christian democrats to regain a traditionally Christian democratic canton. Like the FDP, the CVP was one of the ‘centrist victims’ of the BDP and the Green Liberals’ success. The CSP, which lost its seat in Fribourg, did gain a seat in Obwald where the CSP’s Karl Vogler (apparently endorsed by the CVP) won 57% against 43% for the SVP incumbent (Obwald elects only one member). Vogler will apparently sit with the CVP, whereas the CSP until now sat with the Greens. The Protestant EVP held both of its seats but saw its support dip a bit. The ‘christian right’ EDU lost its only member.
The historic low hit by both the FDP and CVP, two of the old hegemonic parties in Swiss politics, puts into question their long-term survival. These two parties haven’t gained votes in any election since 1979 and keep hitting new “historical lows” in every election since the 1990s. If the BDP and Green Liberals keep showing vitality in coming years and the SVP doesn’t collapse and burn back to the 11% it used to win, then the very survival of the FDP and CVP are clearly on the line. Neither of these parties seem to be capable of “reinventing” themselves in the current political structure, and this being Switzerland, “reinventing” a party is rather tough when you’re a governing party since the 1890s… For now, the FDP and CVP can keep whistling past the cemetery because their immediate fate isn’t on the line and they’ll still be key governing parties in the short-term perspective.
The Greens did badly. They too had hoped for a breakthrough, that is breaking 10%. But the Greens were hurt more than originally expected by the success of the Green Liberals, who won 5.4% and 12 seats (up 9). The Greens need to move towards the centre if they want to regain support they lost and be in a position to cut short the GLP’s success. Still, this is the second highest result for the Greens in any election and, on the upside for them, they gained support (albeit not much) in the cantons where they ran and where the GLP did not run. The Greens are still in contention, in the long term, to out poll one of the two dying centrist parties and place fourth.
The two winners of this election were the Green Liberals, who won 5.4% and 12 seats, up 9 seats and 4% from 2007; and the Bourgeois-Democrats (BDP), who won 5.4% and 9 seats – up from 5 members before the election. The Green Liberals and BDP both gained votes primarily from the FDP and CVP but also, this was surprising, from the Greens (in the GLP’s case) and the SVP (in the BDP’s case). The GLP did best in German Switzerland, which is where the party’s base is. It won 11.5% in Zurich (out polling the Greens), and its states councillor from Zurich Verena Diener is in good position to win the runoff. The GLP won roughly 5-6% in the other German cantons where they ran (save 8% in Grisons) and between 3 and 5% in the French cantons where they ran (5% in Vaud, 3-3.5% in Geneva and Fribourg). The BDP did best in Grisons, Bern and Glarus (20.5%, 14.9% and 61.7% respectively) which is where the BDP took the most members from the local SVP branches and where they had sitting members. It also won 6% in Aargau and Basel-Landschaft and 5% in Zurich. In general, however, outside their strongholds, the BDP did pretty poorly (3-5%) and isn’t really in a favourable long-term position, except if the FDP dies off quickly. The BDP won between 0.6% and 1.9% in the French cantons where they ran.
The far-left finds itself with no seats for the first time in its history. They lost their last sitting member in Vaud, where they won 3.9%. They polled 10% in Neuchâtel and 6.5% in Geneva.
A word also on the other success story of this election: the right-wing populist/regionalist Geneva Citizens Movement (MCG), which I had mentioned in my preview post for their success (14%) in the 2009 cantonal elections in Geneva. The MCG, which, similarly to the SVP, is a “politically incorrect” party, has made the battle against foreign workers from France and Italy their cause. The MCG won roughly 11.7% in Geneva and one seat. But their attempts to expand into Vaud as the Mouvement des citoyens romands (MCR) didn’t work out: only 1.2% in Vaud.
A quick word on the Council of States: there will be a very high number of runoffs. I’ve counted 19 seats still left to be assigned in runoffs, notably in the cantons of Zurich, Vaud, Valais, Uri, Ticino, Bern and Lucerne were both seats are up for grabs. So far, the SP has 8 seats, the FDP and CVP 7 seats each, the SVP 4 seats and the Greens one seat. At dissolution, the CVP held 15 seats, the FDP 12, the SP 9, the SVP 6, the Greens 2 and the GLP 2. The full results by canton, which I won’t run through, can be found here. In Zurich, which I think was the most interesting contest, the GLP and FDP incumbents have placed ahead of the pack. Christoph Blocher, the SVP’s controversial figure, placed in third and is unlikely to win in the runoff.
In the preview post, I had talked about the Federal Council’s renewal in December. The comments made then still apply, and nothing has really changed for any party. The SVP might be in a slightly weaker position to claim a second seat, but it is still very much in contention. The FDP’s second seat might be slightly more at risk, but the CVP after its paltry showing on Sunday isn’t in a good position to claim a second seat at the FDP’s expense. The Greens have no chance at a seat. The big question remains whether or not the BDP’s Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf will win reelection. Her situation has not changed much with the election, because it is obviously not enough to have the BDP’s small caucus behind you. She needs the votes of the CVP and SP if she is to win.