Opinions - 12.12.2011 - 00:00 

Between power and balance

On 14 December, Switzerland will be watching Berne spellbound: the highlight of the country’s political life is on the agenda – the election of the Swiss Federal Council. A comment by Professor Silvano Moeckli.


9 December 2011. Ever since 2003, federal government elections have become even more exciting in Switzerland. They are not only about the personalities who will be newly elected or not re-elected, but also about the make-up of the Federal Council in terms of party politics. Why are these elections so exciting?

The members of the federal government are held in high esteem in Switzerland. They represent both the unity and the diversity of this country. The Federal Council is far more than a mere “executive”. It directs the legislative process and enforces the law, it leads the Federal Administration, it signs international treaties and, in urgent cases, may even override the current legal system. The Federal Council is a collegiate government without strong leadership. This significance of the Federal Council as an institution is accompanied by the peculiarities of the way in which candidates are selected and elected, with intrigues, evasions and “nights of the long knives”. New candidates can be launched up to the very last minute.

Peculiar government elections

There is probably no other country which elects its government in such a strange way. There is no mandatory nomination process. Each member of the government is elected individually in a secret ballot. There are no fixed coalitions of parties, nor is there a government manifesto of those parties which are in government. The Federal Council is elected by the Federal Assembly, i.e. a joint session of the National Council and the Council of States. According to Article 175 of the Federal Constitution, there is only one single precept: the country’s various geographical and linguistic regions must be appropriately represented.

Added to this, there is a broad party political basis, the so-called concordance. From 1959 to 2003 this meant two representatives each from the Christian Social People’s Party (CVP) the Liberal Party (FDP), the Social Democrats (SP) and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). However, since the composition of the Federal Council is supposed to reflect the results of parliamentary elections (the so-called arithmetical or, more appropriately, proportional concordance), this no longer worked out. In 2003, Christoph Blocher (SVP) was elected whilst Ruth Metzler (CVP) was not re-elected. This could be seen as a “breach” of concordance or as its consistent reinstatement. After all, the SVP had won more votes than the CVP as early as 1999.

Concordance is more than the make-up of the government

“In principle” most politicians agree that Switzerland fares best if governments at municipal, cantonal and federal levels both have a broad party political base and if possible make decisions collegially and in a spirit of consensus. Although this is not stipulated anywhere in constitutional law, most governments at all levels work in accordance with this principle. However, concordance cannot simply be reduced to the composition of the government by any manner of means.

Rather, concordance has deep roots in further institutions and in the political decision-making process: in the balance of power between government and parliament, in the multi-party system, in proportional representation, in federalism, in the bicameral system, in the independence of the central bank and, in particular, in direct democracy, which requires political decisions to be placed on a broad basis.

Late “Fukushima effect”

Without a constant balance between the country’s geographical and linguistic regions, social strata, generations, genders, employers and employees, Switzerland would not work. In this country, politics is more strongly geared to concord and balance than elsewhere. Yet like everywhere else in the world, it is also a struggle for power, for participation in the decision-making process and for important positions. And when it comes to the most important position, a seat in the federal government, this is naturally about power, too. Federal government elections take place in the field of tension between power and balance. Thus most politicians are aware that the SVP, which won 26.6% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, would be entitled to two seats on the Federal Council. If it does not get these seats on 14 December, and if Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf is re-elected, then tangible political motives will be at work.

The political central-left camp (SP, Greens, Green Liberals, CVP/EVP, BDP) made gains in the elections of 23 October 2011 and now holds 142 seats in parliament. The FDP and SVP together only hold 103 seats. If the SVP were given Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf’s seat in the government, it and the FDP would constitute a majority in the Federal Council. However, this majority would not reflect a majority in either parliamentary chamber. The importance of preventing a “right-wing majority” in the Federal Council was demonstrated by the decision to phase out nuclear power. This was taken by the Federal Council thanks to Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf’s vote. There was hardly any “Fukushima effect” in the parliamentary elections; it is perfectly possible, though, that the BDP will have the late consequences of Fukushima to thank for the re-election of their Federal Councillor.

No new “magic formula” in sight

As long as the election results are volatile and as long as no unequivocal “magic formula” can be inferred from them, federal government elections will continue to be a struggle not only for the composition but also for the distribution of seats. After 14 December, however, Switzerland will still have a sound and stable government which is roughly proportionate with the political balance of power. If, as has been the case until now, the stock exchange does not react to the election of the Federal Council, this is a good sign.

Prof. Dr. Silvano Moeckli has been a co-commentator for federal government elections on the DRS radio channel since 2003. He is the author of Das politische System der Schweiz verstehen and of the novel Bissig, Bundesrat.

Photo: Keystone, Yoshiko Kusano

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