SWITZERLAND. FURTHER TURN TO THE RIGHT SIDE
(October 31st, 2023)
BERN. Switzerland turns furtherly to the right side: the elections for the 52nd federal parliament resulted in a significant increase in votes and seats for the People’s Party (SVP-UDC) and a collapse for the Greens who lost 4 percentage points and six seats.
In the National Council (200 seats) the SVP-UDC rose from 25.4 to 27.9% and recovered the 9 seats lost in 2019.
The two green lists, which created the surprise four years ago, accumulating a total of 44 seats, have recorded huge losses:
• the authentic Greens, the big losers of this polls, dropped from 13.2 to 9.8% and elected 23 deputies instead of 28;
• the liberal Greens, more moderate in their environmentalist platform, confirm the 7.6% got in 2019, but lose 6 mandates (10 instead of 16).
The three traditional parties on the Swiss political scene show little change compared to the recent past:
– The Social Democrats (SPS-PSS) went from 16.8 to 18.3% and got 41 deputies (+2);
– The liberals of the FDP-PLR lose 8 tenths of a point (14.3 instead of 15.1%) and give up one seat (28 instead of 29);
– die Mitte (the center) which brings together popular Christians and bourgeois democrats debuted with an encouraging 14.1% and elected 29 deputies.
The picture is completed by other small parties, mostly regional, which send a total of 7 parliamentarians.
COUNCIL OF STATES
At the time we’re writing, 33 out of 46 members have been elected in the Council of States: the others will emerge from the second rounds scheduled for the next few weeks.
So far, the Center is the largest group (10 elected), followed by the liberals with 9, the social democrats (6), the SVP (5), the Grünen (3).
DIFFERENT ELECTORAL SYSTEMS
The two Swiss federal Houses are elected with different electoral systems: the law governing the elections of the National Council provides that the lower house is elected with a proportional method based on the canton, with the exception of the less populated States which send only one MP to Bern.
After each general population census, the government issues an ordinance that redistributes the 200 seats to the different states: as a result of the 2020 census, Basel Stadt lost one seat (4 instead of 5) and Zürich gained one (36 instead of 35).
In the cantons of Glarus, Nidwalden, Obwalden, the two Appenzells and Uri, where only one MP is elected, the method chosen for the election is first-past-the-post: the most voted candidate goes to Bern.
For the Council of States, the upper house, the electoral laws are different from canton to canton: having to elect two representatives for each state, one for the six semi-cantons, in general a double round was chosen.
In the first vote, the candidate who gets the absolute majority passes; in the second the simple majority is sufficient.
In Appenzell InnerRhoden, the senator is elected by the Landsgemeinde, the cantonal popular assembly.
Since 1848, the Swiss Confederation has had a rather complex institutional architecture: having been born from an agreement between 23 sovereign states, executive power was entrusted to a college of seven members, the Federal Council, elected every 4 years by the federal assembly, the two houses joined together.
To exercise its functions, the Government mustn’t have the confidence of the legislature, but is required to submit the majority of its decisions to the hoses.
In 1874, with the first total revision of the federal Constitution, “semi-direct democracy” was introduced. Citizens can forward, by collecting signatures, popular initiatives of both a legislative and constitutional nature which, once the parliamentary process has been completed, are submitted to the vote of all voters.
This and more makes the decision-making process very slow, because on the most important matters, everything must be done to reach compromises: this forces political and social forces into a complex dialogue in order to smooth out the edges.
A project that is too radical would risk being rejected by the people.
MAGIC FORMULA AT RISK
What changes after these elections?
The majority of commentators believe that nothing will change immediately: perhaps this is why the level of voter participation has been well below 50% for years.
This time, according to the Federal Statistics Office, 46.6% expressed their votes, a little more than four years ago.
In recent days, signs have emerged that indicate that there could be changes in the political composition of the Government, on the occasion of the vote in parliament in December.
The Greens, in particular, have warned that, despite the losses they have suffered, they believe the time has come to question the “magic formula”.
Since 1959, the four major Swiss parties have divided the seats in the Federal Council: the three largest have the right to two seats, the fourth, with the least popular following, only one.
For 44 years, this structure has allowed the election of two liberals, two Christian Democrats and two socialists and one centrist.
Since 1999, however, the SVP-UDC has grown considerably, while the liberals and Christian Democrats have weakened: thus, in 2003, the CVP-PPD-PDC lost a seat.
Four years later, a split in the UDC and the election of Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, (Graubünden) to the government, who would join the Bourgeois Democratic Party (BDP).
In 2015, with the withdrawal of the Grisons, the SVP-UDC regained the second seat: thus the “magic formula” was reborn.
Therefore, the Federal Council now has two liberals, two social democrats, two popular ones and one from the centre.
Now, as we said, the Greens intend to propose an alternative candidate to one of the two liberal “ministers”: in fact, they believe that the strength of the FDP is equal to that of the environmentalists.
Will the operation be successful? We’ll see it on 13 December, when the Federal Assembly will vote by secret ballot on six of the seven federal councilors in office, following the order of seniority in service.
To be elected, a Government candidate must gets an absolute majority of votes validly cast, excluding the null and blank ballots and, at least in the first two ballots, each parliamentarian can vote for whoever he wants: from the third onwards the contenders with the least following are eliminated, until reaching the decisive fifth, to which the two names with the greatest following are admitted.
THE CRISIS OF THE FDP
Modern Switzerland, born after the Sonderbund War (1847-48) between Catholic and Protestant cantons, was monopolized for decades by the Radical Liberal Party (FDP-PLR) which had an absolute majority in parliament and controlled all the seats in the government, until to 1893 when the first conservative Catholic was elected.
In the following decades the PLR ??lost strength until in 1919 it was decided to move from the single-member electoral system to the proportional system: in the elections of that year the party fell from 104 to 63 seats.
This allows the election of a second conservative Catholic and soon also of a UDC.
With the broadening of the electoral base, the strength of the Social Democrats also grew and in the 1940s they elected their first federal councilor.
As already mentioned, in 1959 the “magic formula” was launched, also with the aim of preventing the Confederation from having a strong opposition party which could, using the tools of semi-direct democracy, paralyze the institutions.
The PLR remained the strongest party in the country until the end of the twentieth century, present in all cantonal governments and local administrations: in 1999, however, it lost first place to the SVP-UDC.
Historical expression of the world of economics and banking, it’s, initially especially in German-speaking Switzerland, preferred by the right-wing electorate who considers it too soft towards foreigners arriving in the Confederation.
Thus, from election to election, his consensus slowly declines, until in 2023 he struggles to defend third place, risking being overtaken by the Center.
The new political formation that successfully presented itself in the federal elections of 22 October is the Centre, made up of the Bourgeois Democratic Party (BDP) and the Christian People’s Party.
After the Sonderbund War, Catholics form the Conservative Party which opposes the Liberals. At the end of the nineteenth century, they entered the Federal Council with their representative.
The cantons where they obtain the most votes are those where the Catholic presence is consistent such as Ticino, Vallais, Luzern, Friborg and the smaller inland Switzerland.
The party is gradually less and less conservative and incorporates more advanced social demands: thus, it transforms into a popular Christian party (CVP-PDC-PPD).
With the growth of the SVP-UDC, even the popular Christians are losing strength and after the 2019 disaster (11%) the congress decided to merge with the bourgeois democrats: the Center was born which, as mentioned, has just got flattering results in the legislative elections.
SECURITY, INFLATION AND IRREGULAR IMMIGRATION
After the 2019 elections and the “green wave” it seemed that environmental issues and the climate emergency were the most important priorities for Switzerland: the 2023 vote brought the issues of security, inflation and irregular immigration, all issues raised in his propaganda by the SVP.
The 43% increase in asylum applications in the first half of 2023 and the arrival of more than 65,000 refugees from Ukraine have provided the sovereignists with the tools to conduct their electoral campaign, based on the foreigner equals murderer axiom.
“On social media – says theguardian.com – terrorist images have been seen: crimes committed by non-Swiss, bloody knives, hooded criminals, fists, bruised faces and frightened women.”
A propaganda with decidedly xenophobic tones which, in the end, however, bore fruit.
The international context has also played into the hands of the SVP: the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, with their consequences of refugees and increases in the cost of living, have changed the order of priorities.
Switzerland, they say from the SVP, must be more sovereign, neutral, independent than in the past.
This, for example, is what Christoph Blocher, 82 years old, a billionaire from Zurich, former MP and minister, who has dictated the party’s line for over thirty years, thinks.
Switzerland – he says – must remain strictly neutral, not participate in conflicts or join alliances. “this strategy works perfectly, given that we have not taken part in wars in the last two centuries.
Bern is able to defend the national territory on its own: neutrality allows us to develop the diplomacy of good offices, a status of strictly neutral mediator.”
From this reasons, for example, Blocher’s opposition to the sanctions decreed by the Federal Palace against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine:
“By participating in this conflict, we have effectively become one of Russia’s enemies, for which we received congratulations from US President Joe Biden. This is regrettable because one day we will have to put an end to this conflict and Switzerland could have acted as a mediator. Furthermore, the last meeting between Putin and Biden before the war took place in Geneva in June 2021. Now, however, we can no longer act as mediators because for Moscow we are involved.”
“Switzerland – concludes Blocher – needs more neutrality, not being a member of an alliance.”
Party which has taken on various names over the course of its history, since the 1990s it has been constantly growing, especially to the detriment of other centre-right, liberal and Christian Democrat formations.
The turning point came with the vote on the Confederation’s accession to the European Economic Area (EES): the SVP, led by Blocher, put himself at the head of the movement against this agreement which in his opinion would have made Bern a colony of the borning European Union.
The campaign was unusually harsh and ended with a clear popular no: since then the party inaugurated a growth trend that has not yet stopped.
In 2003, Blocher was elected to the Federal Council where he remained for four years: in 2007 he was ousted, but continued to exercise much influence inside and outside the party, which in the 2015 elections reached its historical maximum: 29.4% and 62 seats.
In December of that year the second UDC seat in government was elected.
In 1919 there was a decline, which was partly reabsorbed on 22 October: now the president of the party hopes that the result emerging from the polls will push the liberals, for example, to support some of the nationalists’ proposals, thus creating a front clearly shifted to right, as opposed to the red-green left.
Will it perhaps be the theme that will dominate Swiss politics in the coming years?
PIER LUIGI GIACOMONI
 Depending on the linguistic areas, the various Swiss parties take on different names:
– the SVP of German-speaking Switzerland becomes UDC in the Latin cantons;
– the FDP, again in the Germanic area, in Geneva and Lugano takes the acronym PLR;
– The German-speaking SPS becomes PSS in French-speaking and Ticino.
To write this piece, we chose to use, when necessary, the original names of the cantons. Zürich instead of Zurich, Basel Stadt instead of Basel City…
 All the federal councilors in office, except one, have already announced their re-nomination for another mandate: only the owner of the Interior, the social democrat Alain Berset (Fribourg) will retire at the end of the year.