Two elections in the last few days, with predictable but still interesting results.
Opinion pollsters haven’t been having a good year, but they certainly did their job well in Switzerland. Sunday’s federal election saw the seven main parties finish in exactly the order the polls had been predicting, and with pretty much the expected levels of support. You can find all the official results here (that’s the French version, but if you click “DE” in the top right corner it’ll give you German instead).
The hard right Swiss People’s Party remains the largest party, with 29.4% of the vote and 65 of the 200 seats in the lower house. Social democrats, liberals, Christian democrats, Greens, Green liberals and conservatives finished behind them in that order, the seven between them taking about 92.5% of the vote and 193 seats. Five small parties shared the remaining seven seats.
But don’t worry about the precise balance of power between the major parties, because it doesn’t influence the shape of the government. The Federal Council, Switzerland’s cabinet-cum-joint-head-of-state, will be elected by a joint sitting of parliament in December for a new four-year term. That makes it sound like parliamentary government, but once elected the cabinet is not responsible to parliament at all, and although drawn from (currently five) different parties its members act collegially, sometimes in opposition to their parties’ wishes.
Given Switzerland’s success as a prosperous and peaceful democracy, it’s a bit surprising that no-one else has tried to imitate this model. It’s not unlike what our ancestors had in mind when they talked about separation of powers – as for example in the United States constitution, where the initial expectation was that most of the time the president would be elected by the House of Representatives.
Most countries, however, have learned to live with either direct election of the head of government, or actual parliamentary government, where executive and legislative functions overlap. Switzerland’s political culture manages to work without either.
Monday’s Canadian election saw, as I had predicted, a continued swing from the NDP to the Liberals, allowing the latter to finish with an absolute majority: 184 of the 338 seats, from 39.5% of the vote, just over double its 2011 result (but more than five times as many seats). The incumbent Conservatives were reduced to 31.9% and 99 seats, and the NDP fell to 19.7% and 44 seats.
Superficially the result is a mirror image of last time, when the Conservatives won a similar majority (166 seats in a slightly smaller house) with 39.6% of the vote. I described that result at the time as “an absolute travesty”. But this week’s result is different; in 2011 the majority were clearly voting (unavailingly) against Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. It’s not possible in the same sense to say that the majority on Monday voted against prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau.
Although the Liberals had less than 40% of the vote, it’s fair to assume that most of those who voted for the NDP, the Greens (3.4%) and to some extent the Quebec Bloc (4.7%) would have preferred them to the incumbents. Certainly it would have been fairer if the smaller parties had actually held the balance of power in the new House of Commons, but it’s not a case of the system clearly getting the wrong result – as it did on the last three occasions.
Failure to understand the electoral system also explains the rash of commentary about how Harper “lost” the election in the last week or so. In fact it looks as if nothing he did had much impact in that time; the Conservatives stayed steady in the polls just above 30% for about the last three weeks. What changed was that with tactical voting the NDP vote fell away, delivering the Liberals not just a plurality, as most people expected, but an actual majority.
The question now is whether Trudeau, having benefited from the arbitrariness of the first-post-the-post system, will lose some of his past enthusiasm for changing it. It’s the eternal problem of electoral reform: power to change and motive to change rarely go together.