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Liechtenstein Elections: Minute Shifts, Significant Consequences

On Sunday 7 February, the lowly subjects of His Serene Highness the Prince Hans-Adam of the Principality of Liechtenstein headed to the polls to elect a new parliament, the Landtag. Since mail voting—which accounts for above 97% of casted ballots—is extremely prevalent, it would actually be more precise to say: ‘Until Friday, the citizens of the Principality of Liechtenstein mailed in their voting ballots to elect a new parliament, the Landtag’. But we would not be called Europe Elects if absolute precision were our main priority.

Liechtenstein is one of the smallest countries in Europe; German-speaking, landlocked between Switzerland and Austria, and just about 40,000 inhabitants rich. A particularly exciting element of Liechtenstein is its constitution. Liechtenstein is probably the country in the world that comes closest to Switzerland’s famous half-direct democracy, a representative democracy with strong direct-democratic elements, while at the same time being a monarchy with a monarch that maintains considerably more power than other monarchs left in Europe. The People and the Prince are seen as equal sovereigns. No legislation can be passed against the People’s assent, expressed through referenda, but at the same no legislation can be passed without the Prince’s assent, either. Furthermore, quite uniquely, Liechtenstein grants its municipalities the right to secede. Municipalities are free to declare their independence from the principality if they desire. The People are constitutionally granted the right to initiate a referendum, too, on the abolition of the monarchy in favour of a republic if they so wish, leaving them with the ultimate ‘nuclear option’ should insurmountable differences arise between the two sovereigns.

The electoral system is based on proportional representation. The 25 Members of Parliament are elected in two constituencies: 15 of them in the Oberland (the historical County of Vaduz) and the remaining 10 in the Unterland (the historical Lordship of Schellenberg). Each voter awards as many votes as there are Members of Parliament to be elected in his constituency. The electoral lists are open and panachage is legal, meaning voters are not bound to award all their 10 or 15 votes to candidates of the same party.

The parliamentary election of 2021 was seen by commentators as a landmark for the representation of women in politics in the microstate which was the last European country to introduce women’s suffrage in 1984. Not only did the two major parties, the Progressive Citizens’ Party (Fortschrittliche Bürgerpartei; FBP~RE) and the Patriotic Union (Vaterländische Union; VU~RE), voluntarily and for reasons of competence, put forward more female than male candidates for the five government seats. The FBP even nominated a woman as candidate for head of government for the first time in the country’s history: EU Ambassador Sabine Monauni.


The government parties, FBP~RE and VU~RE

The election confirmed the dominating position of the Progressive Citizens’ Party and the Patriotic Union in the political landscape of the principality. Throughout their existence, both of these two parties have always either governed alone or in a coalition government with the other, with a generally supportive stance towards the princely house, the reigning family of Liechtenstein. This is also what has caused an ideological alignment of these two parties, which represent similar views on policy, while the voter bases for a long time could be traced back to old and habitual voting behaviour of voting as people have always voted. Together, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, their voting share has increased slightly, but the Patriotic Union managed to achieve a decisively larger vote gain, ending up 23 votes—corresponding to a single voting ballot—ahead of the Progressive Citizens’ Party. Therefore, based on an informal agreement between the two government parties to award the Head of Government post to whichever party obtained more votes, the trend since 1993 with the party holding the position of head of government changing every 8 years continues.

The anti-establishment opposition, DU (*) and DpL (*)

Since the 2013 parliamentary election, The Independents (Die Unabhängigen; DU-*) have entered Liechtenstein’s party system as the main opposition force to the two-party hegemony in place for so long. The DU advocates for even more direct democracy, involving also the direct election of Liechtenstein’s government, as opposed to the indirect election by parliament and appointment by the Prince now. The party does not follow an ideology in the traditional sense, but has been characterised as right-wing populist.

With the rise of the Democrats pro Liechtenstein (Demokraten pro Liechtenstein; DpL-*), a split-off from DU mainly over organisational rather than policy issues, this political bloc has come under serious pressure. Liechtenstein’s electoral threshold at 8% is relatively high, so predictably the split has caused one of the two parties, in this case DU, to remain below the threshold. From the five seats won in the 2017 elections by DU, only two could be defended, both going to the DpL split-off. This also leads to a loss of parliamentary group status: in the outgoing parliament the three DpL legislators formed a parliamentary group, with the two DU legislators remaining group-less. The minimum number of MPs required to form a parliamentary group is three.

The left-wing opposition, FL (→Greens/EFA)

The only party that adds positions left of centre to the political discourse in Liechtenstein is the Free List (Freie Liste; FL→Greens/EFA). Established in 1985, the party has cleared the 8% parliamentary voting share threshold in each election since 1993, maintaining a solid voter base of eight to 13 per cent of the voting population. In their work, Free List seeks to place emphasis on ecology in everything they do. The 2021 election has seen the Free List come close to its all-time high of 13.0% in the 2005 election, prolonging the streak of consecutive voting share increases since the 2009 election. Its strongholds can predictably be found in the most populous settlements of the country, Schaan and Vaduz.

Who really won the plurality?

The plurality of the vote turned out to cause the main upset of this election day, with the two parties competing for the Premier-ship virtually tied in first place. After the tight result had been confirmed by Electoral Commission, however, the Progressive Citizens’ Party was quick to concede the election and recognise the Patriotic Union’s lead candidate Daniel Risch as designated Prime Minister of the principality, with their own candidate, EU Ambassador Sabine Monauni, left with the deputy position.

This result exposed an interesting consequence of Liechtenstein’s electoral law: the uneven amount of votes per voter awards the voters from Oberland, the larger and more populous southern region of Liechtenstein, a bigger say on who becomes Prime Minister and on which parties manage to clear the 8% threshold. While the Oberland is not overrepresented in parliament, it does have an increased influence on the percentages of votes casted. Europe Elects tried to calculate ‘corrected’ proportionalities, which account for this imbalance in amount of votes per voter. Thanks to the Progressive Citizens’ Party’s dominance in the Unterland, it becomes evident that actually more voters voted for the FBP and Sabine Monauni than for the election winner, the VU with Daniel Risch.

Long story short

Not much has shifted when it comes to elections in Liechtenstein, as far as the voters are concerned. The support for the ‘princely house’ parties remains stable, and so does the support for the protest vote bloc, as well as the support for the left. Yet, the circumstances lead to a number of changes: the party delivering the head of government is to change after eight years, Liechtenstein could get a female-majority government for the first time since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1984, the share of female legislators elected (7/25 this time) has more than doubled, and the parliamentary representation of the split bloc of DU and DpL has dramatically decreased.