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Swiss Elections: Zauberformel Under Fire

Tomorrow, Switzerland is going to elect its legislative body, the Federal Assembly. The Federal Assembly consists of two legally equal chambers, the 46-seat Council of States being the upper, and the 200-seat National Council being the lower chamber. The dynamics of these chambers are traditionally significantly different, mainly because in case of the Council of States each Canton sends one or two representatives and may choose its own electoral system. While most Cantons use a majoritarian system of one or two rounds for this, notable exceptions are Neuchâtel and Jura with proportional voting and Appenzell Innerrhoden which determines its representative in a public physically convened cantonal assembly prior to the election date.

The National Council is elected using a proportional system, with each Canton forming an electoral constituency. Some Cantons are small enough to elect only a single representative to the National Council, which effectively makes them first past the post constituencies. The entire Federal Assembly then elects the 7-member Bundesrat, which is the federal government of Switzerland as well as its collective Head of State. Traditionally, the four largest parties – the Swiss People’s Party (RE), the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (S&D), FDP.The Liberals (RE) and the Christian Democratic People’s Party of Switzerland (EPP) – agree on a 2-2-2-1 distribution (“Zauberformel”, or, magic formula), which has been in place since 1959, making the Swiss government one of the most continuous democratic ones worldwide.

What makes Switzerland special, however, is its tradition for direct democracy. The constitution can only be changed by means of referendum, a legally binding referendum may also be called on any change of law (50,000 signatures within 100 days required) and it is also the people who assume the role of a constitutional court, all federal legislation is binding and cannot be declared unlawful by the judiciary. All of this contributes to a kind of stability of the political party system, with only minor changes in support levels from election to election.

The election campaign is dominated by topics surrounding climate change and social justice, with the Green Party (G/EFA) having a realistic chance to break the traditional 4-party dominance and become 4th largest party in the National Council for the first time.

Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC/PPS-RE/ID)

The success story of the Swiss People’s Party started in 1977, when lawyer Christoph Blocher was elected leader of its Zürich cantonal branch. Blocher lead the ideological shift of the party from a German community-focused centrist party to the leading Switzerland-wide middle-class party. Since, the party has elevated from 11.3% support to an almost three times higher level and has become Switzerland’s largest party, with a 29.4% record performance in the 2015 elections. Key to this has been its staunch opposition to EEA accession in 1992, after which support has risen at every single national election (with the exception of 2011). Currently, the Swiss People’s Party is represented with two members in the Swiss Bundesrat. For historical reasons, it sits with ALDE (affiliated with RE) in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Core policies of the party include opposition to closer EU relations, as well as opposition to migration. Also, the party supports a free-market economy complemented by a decrease in government spending. During the last parliamentary term, the Swiss People’s Party had only little success. Even though a working majority in the National Council existed for its policy, it had trouble to get its initiatives through the Christian Democratic People’s Party and Social Democratic Party-controlled Council of States. Furthermore, important initiatives such as those to simplify deportation of criminal foreigners and to put the Federal Constitution above International Law failed in public referenda.

In light of the focus on green policy issues in public discourse, the Swiss People’s Party is expecting difficult elections. Cantonal election results have been indicating declining support since 2017. Current opinion polling suggests an election result of 25-29%, down slightly from the previous election.

Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (SP/PS-S&D)

In contrast with many social democratic sister parties in Europe, the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland has been able to count on stable support of around 20% of the electorate for decades, reaching their top result in 2003 with 23.3%. Unlike most other Swiss parties, it regards the EU mostly favourably and is an associate member of the European PES (affiliated with S&D). The centre-left party is currently represented in the Swiss Bundesrat with two members.

The party focuses on social issues with special attention to more accessible education, a more affordable health system, equal pay, and more environmentally friendly Switzerland. The party also has some more left-wing tendencies, including party stances to “overcome capitalism”. Furthermore, the party managed to achieve a few successes in public referenda, most notably their successful opposition to a corporate tax reform initiative. An SP/PS-initiated program with the goal of reforming and increasing pensions failed, however.

Positive cantonal election results and a focus on environmental issues suggest the party will do well on Sunday. However, the Green Party and the Green Liberal Party are serious competitors. Opinion polls suggest an election result between 17% and 20%, after 18.8% in 2015.

FDP.The Liberals (FDP/PLR/PLD-RE)

The Free Democratic Party has its roots in the Radical Movement, which dominated the Swiss Confederation in the years after its creation. In 2009, it merged with the smaller Liberal Party to form FDP.The Liberals. For FDP.The Liberals, the 2015 elections marked the end of a 30-year long decline since their 1979 24.0% peak. It is represented in the Swiss Bundesrat with two members and is a member of the European ALDE party (affiliated with Renew Europe).

FDP.The Liberals pursues classical liberal policies. During the election campaign, the party under leadership of Petra Gössi also tried to put more emphasis on environmental policies, which sparked some internal controversy. A big success for the party in the previous term was their opposition to pension reform.

Cantonal elections since the 2015 elections resulted in FDP.The Liberals being one of the biggest winners, however, since mid-2018 this trend appears to have stopped. The recent repositioning on environmental issues has not been proven beneficial yet, which makes these environment-focused elections especially difficult for them. According to opinion polls, FDP.The Liberals can hope for a result between 13% and 17%, after 16.2% in 2015. 

Christian Democratic People’s Party of Switzerland (CVP/PDC/PPD/PCD-EPP)

The Christian Democratic People’s Party had its peak of support in the 1950s and 60s (23.4% in 1963), with declining or stagnating support ever since. It has one representative in the Bundesrat and is an associate member of the centre-right European People’s Party.

During the election campaign, the Christian Democratic People’s Party focused on its “cost-cutting” initiative, which they claim shall ensure that the growth of health costs never exceeds the rate of salary growth. Polls show growing health costs are one of the main concerns for Swiss people.

The upcoming elections will show whether the Christian Democratic People’s Party is able to maintain its two-digit support level. After dropping below 20% in the 80s the 10% mark would be the next significant symbolical threshold the party wants to avoid to fall below. Also, falling behind the Green Party could have severe consequences: the 2-2-2-1 “Zauberformel” agreement between the four currently largest Swiss parties could include the Greens in the future at the expense of the Christian Democrats, effectively relegating them to “minor party” status. Opinion polls indicate a result of 9%-12%, after 11.6% in 2015.

Besides the four traditional main parties, the following smaller parties deserve special attention:

Green Party (GPS/PES-Greens/EFA) — green, left-leaning pro-EU party, could become a more significant force in Swiss politics if they become stronger than the Christian Democrats. Expected result: 9%-12%; 2015: 7.1%.

Green Liberal Party (GLP/PVL-RE) — green and liberal centrist pro-EU party, 2004 split-off of the Green Party over disagreements on economic policy. Expected result: 5%-9%; 2015: 4.6%.

Conservative Democratic Party of Switzerland (BDP/PBD-*) — centrist 2007 SVP/UDC/PPS split-off. Expected result: 1%-5%; 2015: 4.1%.

Due to the absence of an electoral threshold for the National Council, several smaller and regionally active parties are expected to make it to Parliament.

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(Edited by Euan Healey)