The greening of Switzerland

The opinion polls were on the right track in last Sunday’s Swiss election, but they underestimated the strength of the swing to the Greens. I reported in my preview that the Greens and Green Liberals were “up about five points between them,” but in fact it was more than nine points: the Greens from 7.1% up to 13.2% and the Green Liberals from 4.6% up to 7.8%.

Everyone else lost ground as a result, except the small Evangelical People’s Party, which gained 0.2% to 2.1% and picked up a third seat. The far right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) lost the most, dropping 3.8%, but still led the field with 25.6% and 53 of the 200 seats. (Official results here.)

But the big thing is that the identity of the top four has changed for the first time since 1919, with the Greens overtaking the Christian Democrats by 1.8% and three seats, 28 to 25. That will make it very hard to deny the Greens’ claim to a seat on the Federal Council, Switzerland’s collective government and head of state.

After the last election, in 2015, the three biggest parties – SVP, Social Democrats and Liberals – won two positions each on the Federal Council, and the Christian Democrats the seventh. Prior to 2015 the SVP only had one, despite having beaten the other parties in the election.

(The Federal Council is elected not just by the lower house of parliament, the National Council, but by both houses in joint sitting. The Greens (and the SVP) don’t do as well in the upper house, the Council of States, but since it’s much smaller (with only 46 seats) that doesn’t make a lot of difference. Some of the upper house seats are yet to be determined because most cantons operate a two-round system.)

Each position on the Federal Council is elected individually, so they’re allocated by horse-trading and consensus rather than strict proportionality. Nonetheless, there’s no way to justify keeping the Greens out; the Liberals, who outvoted them by only 1.9%, should yield one of their two seats.

Switzerland’s constitutional structure is unusual, but there’s nothing unusual about this as an electoral trend. In the last two years, nine Greens parties have faced elections in Europe*; all but one of them have gained ground (Sweden is the exception), by an average of 3.5%.

In addition there was the election last May to the European parliament, in which the Green-led group rose to become the fourth largest, with an overall vote of 11.7%.

That’s not as dramatic as the rise of the European far right over the last decade. But whereas the latter seems to have stalled at least for the moment, the Greens are still on an upswing, as polls in a number of countries show. Moreover, they tend to be political players in a way the far right is not, with the ability to participate in coalitions across the political spectrum.

Having begun in the latter part of last century as fringe extremists, Europe’s Greens have grown into a thoroughly mainstream force. With many traditional major parties (especially on the centre-left) in serious decline, the Greens have been taking up some of the slack, while still presenting, in the eyes of their supporters, a message that is now needed more than ever.

Assuming that they get their place on the new Swiss executive, it will be another test for their dual role as reformers and consensus-builders – roles that Europe, and the world, desperately need.


* I’m counting parties that are affiliated to the European Greens Party, but only those that run in elections independently. Others (for example, in Poland and Spain) have run as part of a broader left alliance.


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