Election preview: Switzerland

I’ve written a bit before about the problems of presidential government – that is, of systems where there’s a full separation of powers between executive and legislature, rather than having the former responsible to the latter. The United States is the most obvious (and topical) example.

I think the historical record now shows that parliamentary government does a better job than presidential government of delivering stability and accountability. But there’s one country with a presidential system that has an outstanding democratic record, which we don’t hear much about – perhaps because it doesn’t actually have a president.

That country is Switzerland. Like the US, it elects its executive indirectly, rather than by direct popular vote. A joint sitting of both houses of federal parliament acts as an electoral college, voting by secret ballot. Unlike the US, that executive is not a single person, but a seven-member Federal Council, which acts collectively.

Election by parliament makes it sound like parliamentary government, but this is actually a full presidential model. Once elected, the members of the executive serve fixed four-year terms; they cannot be removed by a vote of no-confidence, and there are no term limits and no provision for impeachment. Each year, by rotation, one of the seven presides, but that function is purely ceremonial; executive power is always held jointly.

This system seems exotic, but it’s in line with how republican government was generally expected to work back in the early nineteenth century (the Swiss constitution dates from 1848). Indirect election was the norm, and parliamentary government was still a poorly-understood novelty – Britain was the only country to make it work, and even there theory lagged well behind practice.

Switzerland, though, is now the outlier. It has developed a modern party system, but with a constitutional structure that forces the parties to work together in government. Every Federal Council contains representatives of all the major parties, and it’s rare for a sitting member seeking re-election to be defeated.

It follows that federal elections don’t do a lot in the short term to set the country’s direction, and that’s reinforced by the strongly federal constitution that reserves most powers to the cantonal level. Nonetheless, the election to be held on Sunday will be carefully watched for what it tells us about European political trends.

The lower house is elected by D’Hondt proportional representation within each canton. (There is also an upper house in which each canton has equal representation.) At the last election, in 2015, the far right Swiss People’s Party led the field easily with 29.4% of the vote and 65 of the 200 seats – the fifth election running in which it had topped the poll.

Then followed the Social Democrats (18.8% and 43 seats), Liberals (16.4% and 33) and Christian Democrats (11.6% and 27). A further eight parties divided up the remaining 32 seats, of which the main ones were the Greens, Green Liberals and Conservatives. As a result, the three biggest parties obtained two spots each on the Federal Council and the Christian Democrats one.

The opinion polls suggest that there hasn’t been much change since then. The far right has been losing ground – not a lot, but down maybe a couple of points – while the other three big parties remain static. As in many other places, the big gainers seem to be the Greens. The two rival Green parties are up about five points between them, although about half that is just recapturing what they lost in 2015.

If that trend continues, then at some point the Greens will presumably stake a claim for a seat on the Federal Council, at the expense of either the Liberals or Social Democrats. But given the speed at which these things usually move, that could be some way off.

More than almost anywhere else, Switzerland seems to have tamed its far right. The People’s Party remains stridently anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic, but admitting it to a share of power where it is hemmed around by consensus has minimised the threat to democracy.

The moderate and consensus style of Swiss politics is no doubt a product of tradition as much as of written rules, and the relationship between the two is always complex. Nonetheless, as I said last time around, “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.”


3 thoughts on “Election preview: Switzerland

  1. Given the high regard for Switzerland all round, it does sound odd that no one else has tried to copy its executive structure (barring a couple of brief experiments like Uruguay a century ago and South Africa during the transition period).
    One point the commenters often miss is that the all-party, PR-based structure of the Swiss cabinet is a matter of convention rather than law (like our Senate vacancies before 1977). Legally, the federal joint sitting fills each Ministerial position in turn by separate majority vote, not en bloc by PR with quota of 14.3%, and there is nothing in the Swiss Constitution to stop a majority party or (far more likely) coalition of the left or right from taking all seven seats. Of course, that would be frowned upon by the highly consensus-based and conservative Swiss political culture; also, given federalism, strong asymmetrical bicameralism, and frequent use of referenda, an alliance of really aggrieved, shut-out opposition parties with 49% of seats could do a lot to make life miserable for the executive/ the legislative majority.
    I’m not convinced that writing into explicit constitutional law a rule that “each party gets one Cabinet seat for every 10% of the parliament or remainder over 5%” would hold up long. (Something similar did last briefly in South Africa, 1994-96, when Mandela was the umpire and the reform momentum was strong). A determined president or prime minister could appoint the opposing parties’ nominees to be Minister for Sport, Tourism and Racing while making sure her own allies kept control of Defence, Prisons and Police. (Oliver Wendell Holmes urged all laws should be assessed through the perspective of the “bad man”: I’d update that to urge that all constitutional drafting be assessed from the perspective of a revived “Sir” Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, ie to look for the weak points and loopholes a sufficiently unscrupulous politician can drive a truck through).


    1. Thanks Tom! Yes, that’s exactly right; the Swiss parliament has the ability to create a more unified executive if it so chooses, but that wouldn’t fit with the culture. The present system isn’t even really PR based; party representation changes only very gradually, and not directly in accord with the party strengths. It does mean that there’s the capacity to lock out an extremist party, even if it’s getting (say) a third of the vote. But as yet no-one seems to feel the need to do that with the People’s Party.


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