Opinions - 22.02.2019 - 00:00 

The electoral system also influences electoral success

The Swiss parliamentary elections will take place in October 2019. Who is going to win? The nominee with the most votes? A look at the Swiss electoral system shows that it is more complicated than that. By Silvano Moeckli.

22 February 2019. Which parties and candidates will win the Swiss parliamentary elections on 20 October? The obvious spontaneous answer would be those who win more votes than their rivals. It’s not that simple, however. The votes have to be converted into mandates by means of an electoral system, and this is as complicated in Switzerland, as it is elsewhere. It may well be the case that a party gains more votes but at the same time loses mandates (and vice versa). Electoral law plays a major role in the parties’ and candidates’ chances of winning. This also includes such things as the organisation of the constituencies, election application and voting. Of course, all competing candidates want to shape the rules of the game to their advantage, and so electoral law issues are always also power issues. However, the rules of the game have already been established for the forthcoming election. Let's take a moment to look at them.

Different electoral systems for the Council of States and National Council elections

It is possible to distinguish between two different types of electoral systems: The first-past-the-post and the proportional representation electoral systems. The first-past-the-post system requires an absolute or relative majority of the votes cast to obtain a mandate. Two-ballot systems are widespread: The first requires an absolute majority, the second a relative majority. This is how the Council of States elections work in most cantons.

The 200 mandates of the National Council are awarded according to the proportional representation electoral system. In order to obtain a mandate, a certain proportion of the votes is required. How high the hurdle is depends on the number of available mandates. If, as in the canton of Zurich, 35 mandates are available for National Council elections, the hurdle is less than three per cent of the votes cast on the list. In six Swiss cantons, on the other hand, only one mandate is available, and here the hurdle is very high for a small number of candidates. The mandates are first allocated to the parties and, in a second step, to those candidates who received the most votes on the lists.

In both cases, the constituencies are the cantons. Each canton elects two councillors (one in the case of half-cantons). There are 46 of them in total. With a population of 1.5 million, the canton of Zurich therefore does not appoint more councillors than the canton of Uri, with its 36,000 inhabitants. The 200 seats in the National Council are allocated to the cantons according to their population. This already gives rise to a questions that needs to be clarified by electoral law: Should the allocation be made according to the total population - which it is - or according to the number of voters? If only eligible voters were counted, cantons with a high proportion of foreigners would be at a disadvantage.

Opportunity for small parties to win mandates thanks to proportional representation

Until 1919, the National Council was elected by majority vote. It is only since the introduction of the proportional representation system that small parties have had a chance of winning substantial mandates. The Free Democratic Party of Switzerland lost its majority. Incidentally, proportional representation was only successfully introduced through a popular initiative and only after the third attempt! The proportional representation system, which has been in force ever since, also has its pitfalls when it comes to allocating seats in the cantons.

The “Hagenbach-Bischoff” system benefits the parties with the most voters, as they are most likely to benefit from the so-called “residual mandates”. This is because if the number of votes for the parties is converted into mandates according to the “Hagenbach-Bischoff” system, it never works out exactly. The allocation number is calculated according to the number of list votes cast, divided by the number of mandates plus 1. This results in a second and, if necessary, several further allocations. Here, the votes of the lists or list groups are divided by the number of seats in the first allocation plus 1. The list group or party with the largest quotient wins one (further) seat.

Berechnung Verteilung Nationalräte Kanton St.Gallen 2015

In the first allocation in the 2015 National Council elections, only 9 out of 12 seats were allocated in the Canton of St.Gallen. These are the so-called “full mandates”. This leaves three residual mandates. Three further allocations were necessary to award the remaining mandates. They went to the list combinations comprising the main parties CVP, FDP and SVP. This also means that these mandates for these parties are “unsafe seats” in the forthcoming elections. Two or more parties can enter into “list combinations”. When the seats are allocated, the votes of these parties are added together. The seats achieved by a list combination are in turn allocated internally according to the number of votes. It can be seen that within the list combination of the CVP, the EPP and BDP lost out. Without the votes of these parties, the CVP would have lost a seat. On its own, it lost 3.7 per cent and only received 16.6 per cent of the vote, but won a quarter of the seats. The “Hagenbach-Bischoff” system also favours the stronger parties within list combinations.

Split and combined votes

The voting procedure in the National Council elections permits splitting and combining votes, i.e. a voter can enter a candidate from another party on their own electoral list or enter a name twice. However, to do this they must delete a listed candidate. The voter strength of the parties is measured by the number of votes. Since about half of the voters change the ballot paper, some of them are “notional voters”, because it is only possible to clearly allocate a voter to a party if the ballot paper is unsplit.

Of course, more proportional allocation systems would also be possible without residual mandates, such as bi-proportional system of seat allocation, which seven cantons already apply for cantonal elections. In an initial allocation, the party votes would then be added together throughout Switzerland and the mandates distributed to the parties accordingly. During a second step, it would then be determined in which cantons the parties would receive these mandates. However, parties that benefit from the existing system oppose any changes, of course. This was no different before the introduction of proportional representation.

Prof. em. Dr. Silvano Moeckli is an emeritus associate professor of political science at the University of St.Gallen, specialising in the comparison of political systems and empirical social research. In 2017, he published the book So funktioniert Wahlkampf (How election campaigns work).

Picture: Adobe Stock/Valery Bareta

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