Opinions - 27.10.2015 - 00:00 

An election winner lucky twice over

The refugee crisis determined the balance of power for four years. Silvano Moeckli comments on the results of the Swiss parliamentary elections 2015.
Switzerland, Bern, 09.03.2011 Frühlingssession. © 2011 Béatrice Devènes


23 October 2015. The unequivocal winner of the 2015 National Council elections is the Swiss People’s Party (SVP): an increase of 2.8 per cent in the share of votes and an additional eleven seats. The party’s share of votes rose to a record value of 29.4 per cent. Since the centre-right Liberal Party (FDP) was also among the winners and since the centre-left and left-green parties were the losers, we can speak of a “shift to the right”. Together with two small right-wing parties, “the right” even has a majority in the National Council. If, however, we look at the election result from the perspective of a historical and international comparison, we notice that a political “landslide” did not take place.

The changes are within the bandwidth of the normal political cycles. Four years ago, “the right” lost and the small middle-ground parties won; now it is the other way round. In an international comparison, the volatility of the political parties’ power remains slight in Switzerland. And after these elections and the election of the government that will follow on 9 December, Switzerland will still be among the world’s most stable political systems. At all events, the stock exchange did not let itself be impressed on 19 October.

The main reason was the flows of refugees

The main cause of this election result is not difficult to find: it was the wider political context with the current flows of refugees in Europe and the fear that Switzerland could become a target country just like Germany. It is likely that the SVP would have won the elections even without the refugee crisis, but not to such an extent.

Now, every election takes place against a wider political background which the actors are powerless to influence. However, a situation whereby a boost for a party which grew into Switzerland’s strongest political force thanks to the issues of refugees, migration and foreigners, is provided at the critical stage of an election campaign is rather exceptional. In September, the agenda of Switzerland’s leading media even focused more strongly on the refugee crisis than on the election campaign. About half of the people interviewed by Swiss Radio and Television’s election barometer in late September replied that the issue was among the most urgent problems. The refugee crisis thus shaped the media agenda just as it shaped the public and political agendas, and it was the main reason for the good mobilisation of new and floating voters for the SVP.

According to follow-up interviews, 40 per cent of new and first-time voters declared that they had voted for the SVP. As previously, the SVP was popular with young men, but this time this also applied to women. The balance of political power in Switzerland was thus determined for four years by an accidental concurrence of a general political climate with the elections. A voter turnout of just under 50 per cent may look low in an international comparison; against the backdrop of the generally rather tepid election campaign, however, it was high by Swiss standards. In contrast to the preceding two election campaigns, there were hardly any abrasive attacks on political opponents; dramatic gestures were replaced by entertainmentisation.

The SVP’s luck with proportional representation

Thus the context was the first stroke of luck for the SVP. The second stroke of luck was provided by the system of proportional representation with the allocation of the remaining seats. Four years ago, the party was somewhat unlucky since technically, the applicable seat allocation process according to Hagenbach-Bischoff, ensures that the strongest party should primarily profit. In 2011, the SVP won 27 per cent of the seats with a voter share of 26.6 per cent. This time, it won almost a third of the seats with a voter share of just under 30 per cent. The Green Liberal Party only lost 0.8 per cent of voters but 5 of its 12 seats. These distortions between voter share and percentage of seats exists in almost all countries. In an international comparison, however, this disproportionality is rather small in Switzerland. At the British general elections on 7 May 2015, UKIP won 12.6 per cent of votes but only won one single seat.

The government elections on 9 December

Now the SVP might experience a third stroke of luck on 9 December: a second seat in the national government, the Federal Council, which the party lost in 2007, is back within reach. Although the federal constitution does not provide for any “entitlement” of political parties to seats in the national government, unwritten concordance rules stipulate that the party political balance of power has to be reflected in the composition of the government. From this angle, it is clear that the Bourgeois Democratic Party (BDP; voter share of 4.1%) with Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf should no longer be part of the government; the SVP is entitled to a second seat. Proponents of the centre and the left argue that the SVP and the FDP together do not have a majority either in the Federal Assembly or in terms of voter share, therefore the FDP and the SVP together should not have a majority in the Federal Council, either.

If, however, the SVP is refused a second seat, the current threat might well become more forceful: the substance of the National Council’s policies will list to the right even more strongly, there will be more deadlocks between the National Council and the Council of States, and the SVP will be tempted to topple the Federal Council’s bills. The left will feel cornered and have more frequent recourse to the direct-democratic instruments of the initiative and the referendum. In terms of the good working order of the system as a whole, it would therefore be beneficial if the SVP’s election victory were also reflected in the composition of the national government. Since the Federal Council is elected in a secret ballot, however, the outcome of this election is invariably uncertain. The parliamentary parties never vote unanimously. The Federal Council elections of 9 December therefore promise a high degree of excitement once more. No other political event in Switzerland arouses greater public interest in Switzerland. At such times, media use achieves dream ratings such as are only equalled by matches involving the Swiss national football team at the World Cup. This is about prominent heads, about the parties’ fight for seats, about power and balance, about pacts and “treason”, about “secret plans”, “entitlements”, refined strategies and surprising election results. Tempers are frayed, and yet everything passes off peacefully and without any corruption. This, too, is unusual in an international comparison.

The example of these parliamentary elections demonstrates that in elections like in personal life, actors experience their ups and downs. There will always be a second chance. You only need a bit more patience.

Picture: Parlamentsdienste, CH-3003 Bern


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