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Introduction to Swiss politics

From Baripedia

Federal elections were held on 19 October 2015 with the election of the Federal Council and the Council of States. These elections continued in some cantons with a second round for the Council of States, such as in Geneva or in the canton of Vaud. Today (November 2015), they are still ongoing in a few German-speaking cantons for the Council of States and will end at the end of December 2015 for the election of the Federal Council.

We will use this concrete event to see what political science can tell us about this case. On the one hand, from the perspective of Swiss politics, how does the election context influence elections? In other words, how does the institutional context, the political context influence the behaviour of voters, the strategies of political parties and perhaps also the outcome of elections?

The institutional context provides a very introductory overview of the main institutions of the Swiss political system. We will discuss the system of government, direct democracy, federalism and the electoral system and try to show how these fundamental institutions of Switzerland influence federal elections. It is in this context that political parties act and voters behave, vote and form their opinions. We will see how this context somehow predetermines the choice of voters. We will also discuss the political context of the elections, namely the structure of the cleavages and the party system at national and cantonal level as well as the existing differences from one canton to another.

Assessment of the forces involved[edit | edit source]

Strength of parties in the National Council (% of votes).

The graph shows the evolution of the electoral strength of the main Swiss political parties from 1947 to 2015. The data show the percentage of votes obtained for each party in the election to the National Council. The National Council, which is the most representative chamber of the political forces in the country (also known as the "People's Chamber").

Rising power of the SVP[edit | edit source]

The spectacular element for Swiss politics over the past twenty years has been the tremendous rise of the Union Démocratique du Centre (UDC). The SVP is not a party of the centre, but a conservative and nationalist right-wing party. Moreover, the German name of the party is more faithful to its positioning as the Schweizerische Volkspartei, i. e. the "Swiss People's Party", which corresponds a little better to its concern to defend the people than the SVP claims. The SVP was a small party that stagnated at around 10% and 12% around the decades following the Second World War and began a very spectacular progression in 1995, culminating in 2005. But in 2015, the SVP, thanks to a new success, almost reached the mythical 30% mark. The word "mythical" is used because in Switzerland, no political party since the introduction of proportional suffrage in 1919 has exceeded the 30% mark. With these last elections, the SVP is very seriously approaching this threshold.

Stability until 1990[edit | edit source]

It should also be noted that throughout the period up to the 1990s, there was a very high degree of stability in the party system in Switzerland. From one election to another, there were some variations, but overall there was still a position between the different parties, valid for the Socialist Party in pink, the Radical Liberal Party in blue or the Christian Democratic Party in orange. The party system in the 1990s and 2000s was profoundly disrupted by the rise of the SVP. So we went from a stable party system to a party system with a lot of relatively unstable change. This rise in power of the SVP has been at the expense of other parties. There are two parties that have suffered from the rise of the SVP: the Christian Democratic Party in orange, which has been on a roughly linear downward slope since the late 1970s and 1980s, and the same for the radical liberal party, which has also suffered a fairly constant sharp erosion of its electorate until 2015, when a small recovery can be seen.

New parties[edit | edit source]

The Greens, a recent party created in 1979 and the first European Parliament where one of its representatives was elected with Daniel Brélaz. The Greens then experienced a fairly significant increase until 2007 before declining. Daniel Brélaz has just been re-elected to the National Council, returning after being the first green elected, he returns to the National Council in 2015.

Two new parties appear. The Liberal Green Party and the Bourgeois Democratic Party. These two parties had a very good election in 2011 and had a little more trouble in 2015.

Years of transformation[edit | edit source]

This graph is, therefore, the general picture of the evolution of the strength of political parties in Switzerland and we can see that many important things have happened over the past thirty years. While there was a relatively stable party system, there is a profound transformation of this party system, particularly as a result of the rise of the SVP.

The institutional context of the elections[edit | edit source]

Which institutions influence the electoral behaviour of voters, party strategies, media coverage and ultimately the outcome of elections?

System of government[edit | edit source]

What is meant by "system of government"?

By "system of government" we mean first of all the mode of election of the government, how the executive, how the government is elected, is it by the people or by the parliament and then the type of relationship between government and parliament, namely is the executive power on the one hand, the legislative power on the other independent from each other or on the contrary are they dependent in the sense that one can control or sanction the other. Depending on this degree of dependence or independence, there will be a more or less high degree of fusion of executive and legislative powers.

In comparative politics, in the literature, there are two main types of government systems, also known as types of political regimes.

Two main types of regimes[edit | edit source]

The parliamentary system[edit | edit source]

First, there is a parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system, the government is elected indirectly, i.e. it is not directly elected by the people, but indirectly through parliament. In general, the government comes from the parliamentary majority, which varies according to the country that may be a party or a coalition of parties. In any case, this coalition of parties comes from the parliament and it is it that will then be represented within the government. In such a system, executive power is exercised collectively by a Council of Ministers headed by a Prime Minister whose name changes according to the countries that may be the President of the Council in Italy, the Chancellor in Germany, a Prime Minister in England, but the logic is always a bit the same. There is a Council of Ministers headed by a captain who sets the course, who is the Prime Minister.

There are two important criteria for defining a regime, namely the mode of government election, which is clearly an indirect election of the government by parliament, and the type of relationship between government and parliament.

In a parliamentary system, there are institutional mechanisms that allow mutual control between government and parliament. The government can control the parliament and the parliament can control the government. In concrete terms, there are institutional mechanisms such as the motion of censure that allow parliament to dismiss the government as long as this motion of censure obtains a majority. Similarly, the government can ask the question of confidence, it can on an important rule ask the parliament if it supports it or not. If the parliament says it no longer supports, then the government falls and we have to find another one.

In such a system, the government is accountable to parliament in the sense that the government cannot do anything, parliament has the means if the government deviates from the position that pleases the parliamentary majority to bring down the government with a motion of censure or if the government asks the question of confidence. Conversely, the government also has the possibility to dissolve parliament and call early elections. In a parliamentary system, it is not only the parliament that controls the government, but it is also the government that can control the parliament, sanction the parliament by saying that there is no longer a possible majority in the country, we must clarify things and therefore we dissolve the parliament and call early elections.

With these mutual sanction mechanisms, the government and parliament are obliged to cooperate with each other. If they don't cooperate, one will punish the other. Either the government makes decisions that displease parliament and then it can be sanctioned, or parliament does not agree to pass the laws proposed by the government and then the government can decide to dissolve parliament.

The important point is that it is because there are these mechanisms of possible mutual sanction between government and parliament, it forces the two powers to collaborate and in particular, it forces the parties in power to collaborate with each other. The parties in government must work together to ensure that there is no one missing and voting against the government with the opposition. This leads to a great fusion of executive and legislative powers, i.e. in countries with a parliamentary system, the government and parliament collaborate so closely that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between who is the executive and who is the legislative power. In some countries such as Great Britain, with the Westminster Parliament as a typical example of a parliamentary system, there are even ministers who are also deputies, which reinforces the fusion of powers between the legislative and executive powers.

The Presidential System[edit | edit source]

The second system of government and the presidential system. The presidential system is a system in which, first, the election of the president is carried out directly by the people, i.e. it is the people who, during the elections, decide who will be elected president. The second characteristic is that in such a system, there is a high concentration of executive powers in the hands of the president. The president concentrates a large number of executive powers, such as appointing his or her ministers and secretary of state, he or she is both head of diplomacy and head of the army, and he or she is the person who concentrates a very large number of executive powers. The third point and this may be where the presidential system differs most from a parliamentary system, in a presidential system, the president and his government and the parliament of the other are independent of each other in the sense that the president cannot dissolve parliament and the parliament cannot dismiss the president, once they are elected, for the entire period of the legislature, the government remains in place and the parliament remains in place, they cannot be dismissed either. There is only one exception related to the American system, which is the typical example of the presidential system, where there is a procedure for removing the president called "impeachment", which is provided for in the event of a major crisis because the president has lost his mind. In this case, it is possible to dismiss the president, but this is an exception to the rule that the president is in place for the entire term of office and that parliament is in place for the entire term of office.

So, in such a system, there are check and balance mechanisms, mechanisms for balancing powers, but above all, there is a clear separation of executive powers on one side and legislative powers on the other. Unlike the parliamentary system, in which there is a merger of executive and legislative powers, in the presidential system, there is a clear separation of powers with executive on one side and legislative on the other.

The typical example of the parliamentary system is the British system, but there are others, most countries around Switzerland are parliamentary systems such as Germany, Italy or Austria and the Scandinavian countries, countries in which it is not uncommon for the government to be in a minority, i.e. there is a coalition of parties, but which does not have a majority in parliament. This is quite common in Denmark, for example, where the government, quite regularly because the party system is so fragmented, even if it brings several parties together, they do not have a majority in parliament and they still depend on the support of one or other of the smaller parties. In any case, in most countries around Switzerland where there is a parliamentary system whose archetype is the British system while the archetype of the presidential system comes from the United States.

France is a somewhat hybrid system called semi-presidential because in this system there is a president elected by universal suffrage as a presidential system, but the government comes from the parliamentary majority as in a parliamentary system. In France, there is a system that is both presidential and parliamentary with a dual democratic legitimacy since, at the same time, the president is elected by the people, but also the government is elected by the people through parliament.

The system of government in Switzerland[edit | edit source]

An incursion into comparative politics provides a better insight into the characteristics of the Swiss system of government, how this system of government can be classified in the light of these distinctions between the parliamentary system and the presidential system.

A hybrid system of government[edit | edit source]

The Swiss political system is not an easy case from the point of view of this distinction between parliamentary and presidential systems, it is not the easiest case to classify.

First, because, in some respects, the Swiss system, a little like the French system is a hybrid case, is a hybrid case because, if we stick to the method of electing the government in Switzerland, the Swiss system is close to a parliamentary system. The Federal Council and the Swiss government are not elected by the people, they are elected by parliament, by the Federal Assembly. In Switzerland, as in any parliamentary system, there is an indirect election of the government by the parliament, not by the people. From this point of view, the Swiss system is similar to a parliamentary system.

But the system of government in Switzerland is similar to the presidential system in terms of the relationship between government and parliament. In the Swiss system, as in any presidential system, there is mutual dependence between government and parliament. Once the Federal Council is elected, it is in place for four years and cannot be removed. Similarly, once parliament is elected, it is also in place for four years and cannot be removed. The government does not have the means to dissolve the Federal Assembly, the parliament does not have the means to dismiss the Federal Council. Once elected, these two are in place for four years and are elected independently of each other. From this point of view, the Swiss government is not accountable to parliament. It can be said that he is irresponsible, which means that from an institutional point of view, he does not have to report to parliament to the point of perhaps having to resign or be dismissed by parliament.

From this point of view, we have a somewhat hybrid form between the two main types of existing political regimes, or it is a little more complicated because the system of government in Switzerland and in some other respects a special case. This is a case that is not so common elsewhere.

This is a special case first of all because there is a concordance system in Switzerland. This means that in Switzerland, all the main political parties belong to the government. Where in other countries there would be coalitions either on the left or on the right, in Switzerland, there is both a left-wing and right-wing party in government. There is no institutional requirement for such a concordance, it is not that the constitution or laws require political parties to agree or govern together, it is an unwritten rule, a kind of custom that makes political parties co-opt among themselves, they leave room for everyone to be represented on the Federal Council, at least the largest parties. There is, therefore, a sharing of executive power between the main political parties and this is something quite unique in any case in the extent of sharing for the stability of the system. As in Austria or Germany, there may be large coalitions, but these large coalitions are rather ad hoc, the rule, generally elsewhere, is rather to have a majority political camp that has the power, but that can be replaced by another majority political camp that will have the power. In Switzerland, power is shared among the main parties.

This is really important, there is no institutional rule that forces a Swiss party to govern in a manner of concordance, nothing obliges them from an institutional point of view. There are mechanisms that explain why it is like this, but there is no absolute rule that would force parties to do so.

Power Sharing[edit | edit source]

The second specificity of the Swiss system of government is the fact that the executive power is shared between seven people, namely the seven Federal Councillors, sometimes referred to as the seven wise men. Where in a presidential system there is a high concentration of power in one person, wherein a parliamentary system there is a council of ministers headed by a prime minister, in Switzerland there is a so-called "non-hierarchical" system. The seven Federal Councillors who make up the Federal Council are all on an equal footing. We are therefore talking about a principle of non-hierarchy.

Of course, there is a president, but the presidency in Switzerland is rotating, it rotates each year according to seniority. The presidents in Switzerland do not have much more power than the other members of the college except to direct the weekly meetings of the Federal Council and to represent Switzerland abroad even more than the other federal councillors, there are no other powers, there is no "captain of the ship".

We are talking about a government college. We are also talking about a college because these seven federal councillors must work in a collegial manner, they must respect the principle of collegiality. Under this principle of collegiality, once a decision is taken within the college, the seven Federal Councillors must, in theory at least, defend it before Parliament, the media and the people even if these Federal Councillors did not agree with the decision. So, even if there is a four-to-three vote in the Federal Council, the three who have been reduced are supposed to defend, once the decision is taken, this decision before parliament, the media and public opinion.

When we talk about this system, we are happy to talk about a management system. It is in fact strongly inspired by the directory of the French Revolution of 1791 except that the directory of the French Revolution lasted two years while the Federal Council has been in place for more than 250 years.

Consequences for the federal elections of the Swiss system of government[edit | edit source]

The fact that the government is elected indirectly, i.e. by the parliament, not by the people, and that political parties share power, has the effect of reducing the importance of parliamentary elections. In another country, when voters go to the polls for legislative elections, they know that their vote is important not only for the composition of parliament but also for the composition of the government since the composition of the government will depend on the outcome of the parliamentary election. The importance of the election in these countries is high? By electing a parliament, voters also indirectly elect the government. Nothing of this kind or almost nothing of the kind in Switzerland because the indirect election of the government does not depend so much on the political power relations that are expressed in the parliamentary elections; they depend above all on the game of cooptation between political parties. As we will see, the composition of the Federal Council has remained stable over the past six decades.

When we vote for parliamentary elections in Switzerland, we know in advance that we do not have much influence or only at the margin on the composition of the government and this reduces the importance of parliamentary elections and may also explain why the rate of parliamentary participation is so low in international comparison, that is one of the reasons. This is because parliamentary elections, because of these mechanisms, do not have much or very little influence on the composition of the government, which is very stable because of the power-sharing between the different political parties.

This graph shows the composition of the Federal Council since 1959.

Composition of the Federal Council (seats).

For almost fifty years, between 1959 and 2003, the composition of the Federal Council remained unchanged. There was a composition with two representatives of the PLR (Liberal Radical Party), two representatives of the PDC (Christian Democratic Party), two representatives of the PS (Socialist Party) and one SVP. This was called the "magic formula" at the time. The "magic formula" is this composition of the Federal Council, this distribution among the main political parties. This corresponds to the period when there was very little change in the balance of power in the parliamentary elections. There were some changes from one election to the next, but in general, there was a very high degree of stability in the form of each party and this is why the composition of the Federal Council was not changed either.

There was a first change in 2003, and this change followed the rise of the SVP to the extent that the SVP had gained so much strength in parliament that it made sense to give it a second seat on the Federal Council. It was a small party called the junior partner of the Federal Council, but with its electoral successes, it became Switzerland's leading party. So, from an arithmetic point of view, if we think of proportionality rules, it made sense to assign a second seat to the SVP. This second seat was attributed to Mr Blocher, who was himself the charismatic leader of the party. That year, for the first time in a century, an outgoing Federal Councillor, a Federal Councillor, was not re-elected. In 2003, it was Mrs Metzler of the PDC who was ousted, who was not re-elected, and in her place, a majority of the parliament chose Mr Blocher.

So, when it is said that the government cannot be dismissed by parliament, it is, of course, valid for the four years of the mandate, but every four years, federal councillors are re-elected by parliament for new four-year periods. On this occasion, it is possible for parliament not to re-elect a Federal Councillor, which is extremely rare. There is an unwritten rule that federal councillors are tacitly re-elected if they represent, they are re-elected, that's how it used to work. In 2003, we changed this unwritten rule, we did not respect it unwritten by electing Mr Blocher instead of Ms Metzler. It is an extremely rare event because the last time it was in 1897. Between 1897 and 2003, all the federal councillors who ran for re-election were re-elected.

After that, there was a little more instability in the composition of the Federal Council, at least with regard to the sixth and seventh seats. In any case, there has been no major change, but instability with regard to the sixth and seventh headquarters. In 2007, after four years of Blocher experience, the Federal Assembly chose not to re-elect Christoph Blocher, to oust Christoph Blocher. This gets a little more complicated and explains why there are "0" or "2" in the table. In December 2007, the Federal Assembly made a dramatic move by not re-electing Christoph Blocher and chose another SVP woman in his place. The idea of the parliament at that time was to say that we want there to be two SVPs in the Federal Council, but we no longer want Christoph Blocher and so we elect Mrs Éveline Widmer-Schlumpf of the SVP in her place, who was joining another SVP already in place, namely Samuel Schmid.

Formally speaking, there were still two SVPs, except that the SVP did not recognize its two federal councillors by saying that these two people no longer represent the party, are excluded from the cantonal sections of the SVP from which these two people come and therefore, indirectly, we exclude these two people from the SVP. Formally, there were two SVPs, but they were more recognized even though they were SVPs on behalf of their own party. These two SVPs were not recognized by their own party because it was recognized as being too moderate to the taste of the party's new dominant fringe. The SVP is Blocherian, i. e. much tougher on issues of immigration, asylum policy and European integration. The SVP is much more right-wing, nationalist right-wing than these two rather moderate people. The SVP no longer felt represented in the Federal Council by these two people, who now represented a very minority movement within the party, and the SVP found it unfair that the Federal Assembly chose them, as they did not feel part of the party's majority movement, namely the one that had won the elections.

In 2008, the SVP emerged from government, no longer considering itself a government party, but an opposition party. It lasted a year. In 2009, Samuel Schmid left and was replaced by Ueli Maurer, the president of the SVP, who represented the party's majority, and so the SVP returned to the Federal Council formally and substantially. In the meantime, the SVP's decision to exclude the grey and Bernese section from which Mrs Éveline Widmer-Schlumpf and Mr Samuel Schmid came, led to the creation of the BBD, namely the bourgeois democratic party, which is, therefore, a party that emerged from the split within the SVP. For one year, there were two BBD representatives, Mr Samuel Schmid and Ms Éveline Widmer-Schlumpf. Mr Samuel Schmid left and was replaced by Ueli Maurer, after which we had this constellation from 2009 until today of five parties, namely two PLR, two PDC, two PS, one UDC and one BBD. Except that Mrs Éveline Widmer-Schlumpf will not stand for re-election in December 2015, that she will leave the Federal Council, and therefore, there will be a vacancy, a vacant position when the Federal Council is elected, the parliament will have to elect a new Federal Councillor. There will be two SVPs in the Federal Council, but it is not known who will be the second.

Beyond these adventures on people because it makes it possible to incarnate the people behind these figures, but beyond these adventures, if we wonder why parliamentary elections in Switzerland have little impact, we can see that it is because the composition of the Federal Council has only changed marginally, it has changed a little over the past twenty years, but it is played out on a seat, the sixth or the seventh, not the entire government is concerned.

In another country, from one election to another, depending on whether the left or the right wins, the government changes complement and policies change completely. In England, when a Labour Party government succeeds a conservative right-wing government, then the newly elected government hurries for the first six months to defer all the laws that the previous government had made, namely a sudden change of course in these countries l-. This does not exist in Switzerland, which is why parliamentary elections are less important than elsewhere.

With regard to the Federal Council, we talked about arithmetic concordance, i.e. the distribution of seats in the Federal Council is roughly proportional to the parliamentary strength of the parties. It is on this arithmetical principle that the SVP claims and will obtain a second seat, which is perfectly logical since it is the largest party by far now.

But it must be stressed that concordance in Switzerland is not only an arithmetic rule, it is also a rule of political conduct. Concordance is the idea that a party that is co-opted to government becomes a government party, that is, a party that is co-responsible for government action. In other words, it is the idea that if you enter government, you must comply with certain rules, you must behave like a real party of government, you must be co-responsible for government action, you must be in solidarity with the government and you must avoid putting obstacles in the way of government as much as possible. It can well be shown that the evolution over the last twenty years has been towards the end of the agreement. Political concordance no longer exists in Switzerland, we have two parties in government, two parties that are very often opposed to the government, the most obvious being the SVP, but the PS, in its kind, is also a party that has a strong positional fibre. We try to respect an arithmetical concordance, but it is at the cost of political concordance, because we can no longer guarantee it, there is too much difference between the SP on the one hand and the SVP on the other to be able to govern in a concordant and consensual manner in the Federal Council and Swiss politics in general.

Direct democracy[edit | edit source]

Direct democracy is one of the key institutions of the Swiss political system and also a distinctive feature of the Swiss political system. To realize how important and developed direct democracy is in Switzerland, one only has to look at the statistics of popular votes. Researchers have made an inventory of all the popular votes that have taken place in the world at the national level throughout the 20th century and half of these votes have taken place in Switzerland. In other words, the Swiss people voted in a direct democracy at the national level, as many times as all the other countries combined. This gives an idea of the importance of the development of direct democracy in Switzerland.

Switzerland is a special case due to its unique development in the world of direct democracy. It should be noted that direct democracy is also very developed in some American states, for example in California where there is a lot of voting at the state level and not at the national level. In terms of size, California is much larger and more populated than Switzerland. Switzerland is a special case at the national level, but it is not a special case if we go down to the level of some American states.

The fact is that direct democracy offers Swiss citizens the opportunity to express themselves on concrete issues. In other words, direct democracy offers the Swiss people a right of co-decision on the formulation of public policies. In Switzerland, people vote three to four times a year on various and often different topics. This possibility is quite unique and has consequences.

The three main direct-democratic institutions that exist in Switzerland at the federal level are:

  • the popular initiative which is a function that allows a group of citizens to meet, to write a constitutional article and moderately that this group is able to collect 100,000 signatures in eighteen months, this group can propose a change in the constitution. This change will ultimately have to be adopted by a popular vote adopted by a double majority of the people and the cantons.
  • the compulsory referendum also aims at constitutional changes, but this time c- is not initiated by the grassroots, by citizens' committees, by political parties, but is initiated by the authorities themselves such as the government or parliament and leads to a modification of the constitution which is also subject to a compulsory vote by a double majority of the people and the cantons.
  • the optional referendum applies to any law passed by parliament. All laws passed by the Federal Parliament in Bern can be challenged by referendum by the referendum committee's ability to collect 50,000 signatures within 100 days of the law's announcement to the Federal Gazette. If this committee is able to collect the necessary signatures, then a vote takes place, but this time c-, the simple majority of the voters, and not the double majority, applies.

Switzerland, from a comparative point of view, is very different from other countries because of the very high development of direct democratic tools that give the Swiss people this right of co-decision on legislation.

In other countries, national, legislative and/or presidential elections are often the only opportunity to express themselves, a political choice or a political preference every four years every five years, depending on the country. It is therefore only by choosing candidates for presidential elections or political parties for legislative elections that it is possible to influence institutional politics in other countries where in Switzerland there is this combination of representative democracy, but a lot is done on subjects of direct democracy.

What are the consequences?

The first consequence is that direct democracy competes with elections. To the extent that we can express ourselves, not necessarily by choosing candidates and parties, but also by saying if we support a reform of public policy, it increases the possibilities of expressing ourselves and the fact that elections are one means of expression among others. Where direct democracy does not exist, elections are the main forum for political expression. So direct democracy competes with elections.

Secondly, and more concretely, direct democracy has the effect of increasing the number of popular votes. We vote very often in Switzerland, we vote for elections and we vote for popular votes. This most likely has the effect of reducing voter turnout. If there were only elections as a means of expressing a political preference, there would be more participation in elections even if, as there are others, citizens are selective, they choose from case to case and sometimes if they consider that elections are not that important in Switzerland.

With direct democracy, it is always possible to correct a decision taken by parliament. Even if we have elected parties and finally we realize that these partisan power relations do not suit us individually, it is still possible to challenge parliamentary decisions through a referendum or by launching initiatives. Therefore, it is always possible to counter or correct decisions taken by parliament after the fact, which has the effect of reducing the importance of parliamentary elections in Switzerland.

Federalism and federalism[edit | edit source]

Article détaillé : Le fédéralisme.

Federalism has several forms of influence on elections.

The corollary of federalism is the existence of two chambers in Switzerland, which are two chambers of parliament, namely the People's Chamber and the Chamber of the Cantons. In addition, there is what is called in Switzerland a perfect bicameral system or integral bicameralism or symmetrical bicameralism. This is the idea that both chambers in Switzerland have the same prerogatives. All constitutional amendments, all federal laws, all federal orders must be adopted by both chambers and both chambers must agree on the same text. As long as they do not agree on the same text, there are mechanisms that shuttle between the two chambers and then there is a conciliation conference that is set up if necessary to ensure that both chambers converge on the same text and that the same text is submitted to the final vote in both chambers. It is the same prerogative for the Chamber of Cantons and the Chamber of the People.

The People's Chamber, known in Switzerland as the National Council, has 200 seats and this People's Chamber distributes the seats in proportion to the size of the cantons, i.e. each canton receives a number of seats that is proportional to its population, including 35 for the canton of Zurich, 11 for the canton of Geneva, 4 for the canton of Neuchâtel and 1 for the smaller cantons.

In the Council of States, the People's Chamber, only 46 seats are allocated to each canton, regardless of their size. Regardless of their size, the cantons receive two seats, one for the half-cantons of Basel, Appenzell, Nidwalden and Obwalden. This second chamber with this distribution of seats independent of the size of the canton has the effect of representing the small cantons. This way of allocating seats in the second chamber, which was inspired at the time by the American Senate, this distribution of seats of two per canton regardless of size has the effect of strongly representing the small Catholic cantons in particular. There are historical reasons for this dating back to the creation of the federal state in 1848.

This is a major characteristic because if there were no federalism, there might not be a second chamber that would perhaps not have the same prerogatives and if there were not federalism as advanced as in Switzerland, there would not be full bicameralism with the same prerogatives in each of the two chambers.

The second way in which federalism influences elections is through the party system. Political parties in Switzerland were first born at the cantonal level and then regrouped and federated at the national level. Even today, the Swiss party system is still very much influenced by the differences that exist from one canton to another. There are wide variations in party systems from one canton to another.

If we look at two cantons, if we look in detail at the parties in these cantons and the strength of these parties, there are no two cantons in Switzerland that are identical in terms of the number of parties and the electoral strength of each of the parties. Of course, there are cantons where there are the same number of parties, but there are also cantons where the parties have the same weight. This inter-cantonal variation has the effect of increasing the overall fragmentation of the party system at the national level. These variations in party systems from one canton to another have the effect of increasing the overall fragmentation of the party system at the national level. This global fragmentation of the party system at the national level is expressed in particular by the number of parties present in the Federal Assembly, there are many parties. Parties that are strong locally, even if it is only in one canton, can also be represented in Berne, such as, for example, the MCG (Mouvement citoyen genevois) in Geneva, which is a purely local party, purely genevan also has a representative on the National Council. The lega ticinese, which is a counterpart of the MCG in Ticino, is very strong in the canton even if it exists only in this canton, also has representatives in the Federal Parliament. The Federal Democratic Union, a very conservative party that exists in some German-speaking cantons, has its representation in Bern. The small German-speaking Evangelical and People's Party has representatives in Bern. These small parties that are locally strong enough to have a cantonal existence are also represented in Bern, which increases the variety and fragmentation of the party system at the federal level.

National parties are historically cantonal parties that have subsequently regrouped and federated at the central level. Even today, at least for some parties, the national parties are not very strong from an organisational point of view, they are still very marked by the cantonal sections and the variety of the cantonal sections. This has the effect of reducing the internal coherence of political parties. If we consider the Christian Democratic Party in Valais, it remains a majority party, even hegemonic, an interclassist party, but relatively right-wing. This same party in Geneva is a minority party that represents only between 12% and 13% of the electorate, very centrist, more closely allied to the Valais socialist party than to the Valais PDC. This is an example that shows that the same party in two cantons, depending on its historical position, its position as a majority or minority party, can be extremely different. This variety, this heterogeneity is then translated at the federal level into the party system that we know at the national level.

The distribution of electoral districts in Switzerland is based on the federalist distribution. In other words, the cantons are the electoral districts. The division of the electoral districts is based on the federalist territorial division and therefore the cantons in Switzerland are the electoral districts. This means that during federal elections, the local issues specific to each of the cantons also count and sometimes even count much more than national issues. Local issues are increasingly more important than national issues and local election campaigns are more important than national party election campaigns.

When we talk about federal elections in Switzerland, we are also talking about elections that take place in each canton and are strongly influenced by the realities and contexts, as well as the challenges specific to each canton. Henry H. Kerr said that in Switzerland, national elections do not exist, federal elections do not exist, they are in reality only parallel and simultaneous cantonal elections. This gives an idea of the importance of the local context in defining preferences in federal elections.

The fact that we have this division of the constituencies modelled on the cantons for both the national and the states, for both chambers, means that a party, in order to be able to progress throughout Switzerland, must progress in several cantons at the same time and if possible in all cantons at the same time. If a party makes progress in only a few cantons, progress could be offset by stagnation or losses in other cantons. The effect of this mechanism is to make it more difficult for a party to progress throughout Switzerland. This only further highlights how spectacular the rise of the SVP has been over the past twenty years. Because to ensure this increase in power, the SVP had to make progress throughout Switzerland. The SVP has now made substantial progress in all Swiss cantons.

With regard to the role of federalism, we have said that federalism influences elections in Switzerland because so-called national elections are not entirely national in Switzerland. In reality, this happens a lot in the cantons and at the national level, national issues, the national campaign is not very important. This was already exaggerated at the time. At the time, there was already a form of national election, and then, above all, over the past thirty years, there has been a strong nationalisation of elections in Switzerland. There has been a strong nationalization, elections are much more national today than they were thirty years ago. The Swiss party system too, even if it is still marked by the local context, is still much more national today than it was thirty years ago.

This nationalization of the party system and this nationalization of elections is due in part or even in large part to the rise of the SVP in all four corners of the country. The SVP has made progress everywhere, including in the cantons where it was very strong or even non-existent. These conquests by the SVP throughout the country have helped to make the party system as a whole much more national.

The electoral system[edit | edit source]

We begin with some elements of definition, including asking what the electoral system is and what are the expected effects of an electoral system.

The electoral system, also known as the "voting system", are the rules that define and determine how votes are translated into seats, i.e. how the votes cast are translated into seats for parties and candidates and then how the seats are distributed among the different parties. In other words, it is how the tracks are transferred and translated into seats and then how the seats are distributed among the parties.

Definitions[edit | edit source]

There are two main types of electoral systems: the majority system and the proportional system.

The majority system, as its name suggests, uses the majority rule as a criterion for converting tracks into seats. A party or candidate, parties or candidates who have obtained an absolute majority or at least more votes than the other candidates and parties receive all the seats, they win. In a system like this, if there are three parties, and there is only one seat available, the party that leads will get the seat.

The consequence and purpose of this majority system is to achieve strong and uniform majorities since we favour the major parties, those in front of, automatically, the major party or the few major parties will find themselves over-represented and will therefore be able to govern with a more homogeneous majority.

The other type of system is the proportional system, as its name also indicates, which distributes seats more or less in proportion to the number of votes cast. It therefore makes it possible to fairly accurately represent the votes cast by the citizens who voted.

In this system, the seats are distributed a little more proportionally, we try to distribute the seats proportionally according to the balance of power that was expressed in the ballot boxes, in other words according to the share of the votes obtained by each of the parties.

To summarize, there is a system that is the majority system that tends to distribute the channels according to the majority criterion and that will concentrate the seats on one or a few parties. The other system tends to distribute seats roughly in proportion to the electoral strength as expressed in the ballot box.

The Duverger Law[edit | edit source]

On this basis, there is a famous law in comparative political science, a hypothesis that was developed by Maurice Duverger, a French political scientist. Duverger, in a book on political parties in 1951, had formulated his thesis and hypothesis intubated the Duberger Act.

This law postulates that there is a close link between the electoral system chosen in a country or region and the party system that will develop in that region or country. It is a relatively simple law:

  1. The proportional system favours a multi-party system, i.e. several parties sharing seats; The majority system favours major parties or even two parties, so it favours a few major parties or even depending on the type of majority rule applied, it can lead to two-party system, so only two parties that are active and present in a context.

This law develops according to two types of effects, namely a mechanical effect (1) and a psychological effect (2). We are referring to the majority system, in the proportional system, the rule is quite clear, the system is proportional, so there are several parties. In the majority system, the law is that in a majority system, there are only a few parties or even two parties because of a mechanical and psychological effect.

The mechanical effect is on the mechanism for converting the tracks into seats. If a majority system is applied, it means that there is a high enough barrier to reach to be elected. In other words, with this system there is a high enough barrier to reach to have representatives. The extreme case is an absolute majority where a party would need more than 50% of the votes to obtain seats. In such a context, this tends to favour the major parties because only the major parties are able to obtain enough seats to pass this majority milestone.

As the system has this high demand, this system rewards the major parties. In a majority system, large parties are over-represented while small parties are under-represented.

If there is a system in which the first party passes then the largest party will pass and take the whole bet. We are talking about a "winner takes all" system, i.e. the winner takes all the seats available. In this case, if we multiply the ridings where the big party will take all the money, there will be an over-representation of the big parties at the end, while the small parties will be under-represented.

In a way, the ways that are expressed for small parties are lost because they are never able to reach the majority threshold. This is the first mechanical effect that concerns how the tracks are translated into seats.

The second effect is a psychological effect, i.e. a psychological effect that is related to the mechanical effect. The psychological effect is related to the mechanical effect described and occurs on both the political party and voter sides. There is a mechanism among parties and voters to anticipate results based on the majority system at work.

Let us take the example of the Council of States in Switzerland with only two seats available. It is clear that with only two seats, you have to be a big party to hope to get one of the two seats. If a small party is running for election, we know in advance that it will have little chance of winning because the bar is too high for it. So this psychological effect discourages small parties from running for office, and small parties give up running because they know in advance that they have little or no chance of getting through the process.

So, this psychological mechanism tends once again to favour the big parties because it discourages the small parties from running for office.

The same applies to voters. Voters who go to a majority system election such as the Swiss federal elections with only two seats available, if there are six lists and the fourth, fifth and sixth lists are small parties that we know in advance that they will never be among the first two, then voters will tend to give up voting for small parties knowing in advance that they have no chance of being elected.

This psychological effect will once again favour the major parties.

It is the basic rule of Duverger's law that has been widely commented on, criticized and revised, we now know that there are other mechanisms that play a role and it is not only the electoral system that explains the political offer or the result of elections, but finally, it is a rule that still gives an idea of the general effects of these two main types of elections.

To sum up, the proportional system leads to a multi-party system and the majority system leads to a few major parties or even a two-party system in very specific cases. This detour through the electoral system shows what is happening in Switzerland in federal elections, what type of electoral system we have and how it influences elections.

Other factors determining the degree of proportionality in a proportional system[edit | edit source]

We have talked a lot about the proportional system. As a general rule, a proportional system favours a multi-party system, but then, in the broad category of proportional systems, there are a whole series of variations and criteria that make the system more or less proportional.

So, what are the other factors that determine the degree of proportionality in a traditional system?

The first obvious factor is the number of seats available, for example in parliament. If there is a parliament with only 20 seats or a parliament with 200 seats, it will change the proportionality of the election.

Another question is whether there is a legal quorum? This means that a minimum threshold is set below which a party will not have seats, such as, for example, the fact that a party must have at least 5% of the lanes with seats, below which it will not be represented. If such a quorum is set, it disadvantages small parties that are below the theoretical threshold.

We are also talking about a natural quorum. To calculate the natural quorum, the following formula is used: . The natural quorum is related to the distribution of constituencies and the number of seats available per constituency. If we have a proportional system, but we apply it in an electoral circumcision where there are few seats, then the system is not so proportional because this limited number of seats available will reduce the proportionality of the election. This is called the magnitude of the district, which means that the size of the district is defined by the number of seats available.

If there are only 5 seats to be filled in a constituency, in such a constituency, there will be a natural quorum of about 16%. This means that a party that does not do at least 16% will not be able to have a seat. Even if the system is proportional, having a limited number of seats available creates a natural quorum. Below 16%, a party has practically no chance of having a seat.

The idea is that a proportional system in which there is a legal quorum and/or natural quorums because a division into constituencies and a small size of constituencies, such a system will move away from a proportional system towards a majority system.

The logic behind it is to favour the big parties. The higher the quorum, the closer we will get to a majority system. If there is a constituency with three seats available, there is a natural quorum of 25%, i.e. a party must do at least 25% of the routes to have a seat. We are approaching the logic of a majority vote.

The electoral system in Switzerland[edit | edit source]

In Switzerland, there is a proportional system for elections to the National Council in all cantons except in the cantons, which have only one seat for the national. For the national level, the number of seats per canton is distributed according to the size of the canton, i.e. according to the population. The smallest Swiss cantons are so small that they are entitled to only one seat on the National Council. In these cantons, by necessity, by definition, a majority system applies. If you have only one seat, the system is necessarily the majority. You can't have a proportional system if there's only one seat available.

With the exception of the smallest cantons, which have only one seat, there is a proportional system in all the other Swiss cantons. It is a national rule, a federal law on political rights that applies to all cantons.

So, in the National Council, there is a system that favours a multi-party system, at least in the largest cantons. In the largest cantons such as Zurich with 35 seats, even medium-sized cantons such as Geneva with 11 seats and Lucerne with 10 seats, in these cantons, even for a small party, it is possible to hope to have a seat and therefore it multiplies the lists and the number of parties that will be represented. The proportional system favours a multi-party system, at least in medium-sized and larger cantons.

In these small cantons, which have only one seat, in which the majority system applies, in these cantons, there is a majority logic that is essential and favours one, two or three major parties in the canton. This majority logic has the effect of reducing the electoral offer, there are fewer parties running as candidates and only one is elected since there is only one seat. The competition consists of two or maybe three parties, only one of which is elected. This favours concentration around a limited number of parties.

In this case, the parties must either be large in the local context and/or capable of forming an alliance to form a coalition and thus hope to strengthen the weight of the electoral coalition.

In the Council of States, the second chamber, the canton's chamber, there is a different logic because there is a majority system in all but two cantons. In most cantons, there is a two-round majority system. This means that a candidate must obtain an absolute majority in the first round, only those candidates who obtained an absolute majority in the first round are elected and if not, there is a second round and the first two are elected.

In such a context, we find this majority logic that favours the largest parties. Only those parties that are able to fight to have one of the two seats available are candidates and are actually elected.

The majority logic is very strong in elections to the Council of States and favours the major parties, unlike the proportional logic that prevails for the National Council. There are therefore two different logics in Switzerland, namely a more proportional logic for nationals and a more majority logic for States.

The exception in Switzerland is illustrated by two cantons that have chosen to have a proportional system, including for the Council of States, namely the cantons of Neuchâtel and Jura. It should be noted that in this case, the system is not so proportional because again, there are only two seats available for each canton and there is therefore a natural quorum which is very high at almost 33% of the tracks. Only the big parties, even in Neuchâtel and the Jura, have the chance to pass the ramp.

The consequences of the electoral system[edit | edit source]

What are the consequences of these two types of elections, these two chambers that are elected according to such a different system in one chamber and in the other?

Élections fédérales 2015: répartition (provisoire!) des sièges.

The consequences are visible visually. If we accept that this projection is faithful to reality, in the National Council, the SVP clearly dominates, the SVP has 29% of the channels, but 32% of the seats. Next come the Socialist Party, the PLR and the PDC. What is striking is the contrast between the SVP's strength in seats on the National Council and its strength in seats on the Council of States. Where the SVP has 32% of the national seats, it will have about 15% of the seats in the Council of States. This is a considerable contrast of parliamentary forces for a party.

The opposite is true for the two parties of the moderate right. The PLR and the PDC have respectively 17% and 13% of seats at the national level, but they have 26% and 28% of the seats in the Council of States. These two parties are much stronger in seats in the Council of States than they are in the National Council. These differences are largely due to the electoral system and the division into constituencies in Switzerland.

The consequences are that on the one hand there is a significant under-representation of the SVP in the Council of States. Why is the SVP doing so well in the National Council and so badly in the Council of States? Why does the SVP have such a difference in success in one chamber and the other?

The very marked profile of the SVP, its radicalisation on the right, is a double-edged sword as explained in the article The two main causes of the SVP's under-representation in cantonal governments: a too marked profile and insufficiently established sections of Professor Pascal Sciarini[1].

On the one hand, this very marked profile is an advantage in a proportional election. In such an election, a very marked profile makes it possible to strongly mobilize the electorate, this allows the parties to distinguish themselves from the others and therefore to capture and strongly mobilize the people who imagine themselves voting for the party. The very marked profile, the very hard campaign that this party often leads in a proportional election allows it to mobilize its paths. All that matters is the percentage of votes you get. The percentage of votes obtained is proportionally translated into seats.

On the other hand, in a majority system election where you have to be either a very large party or be able to form alliances and "sweep wide openly", that is, seek ways beyond your own party. A party like the SVP, which has a very strong profile, is not able to "sweep widely". It is difficult for him to form an alliance since he has such harsh positions that he gets angry with just about everyone and it is therefore difficult for the other parties to form an alliance with the SVP knowing that the SVP keeps denigrating them. So this limits the possibilities of alliance for this party and an alliance is important to cross the majority cape, and in addition, the candidates of the SVP are often themselves very marked as the party and therefore these individual candidates are not so much able to seek ways outside their own party severely limiting their chance of success.

The two moderate right-wing parties, the Liberal Radical Party and the Christian Democratic Party, are in exactly the opposite configuration to the SVP. These two parties are significantly over-represented in the Council of States in relation to their actual electoral strength. The PLR is about 16% of the electorate and the PDC is about 14% of the electorate. They are much stronger and over-represented in the Council of States.

The reason is that these two parties, in a majority election, are favoured, they have an advantage because they have a relatively centralist position that allows them to form alliances (1) between themselves or with other parties of the moderate right, this allows these parties to present candidates who are able to go far beyond their own electoral camp (2). The PDC and the PDR are largely able to form alliances because their moderate profile is an asset for alliance with the centre-right and even the slightly harder right, and on the other hand, these parties are able to present candidates who will go far beyond their own party. This is the successful recipe for a majority system election.

On the other hand, the price these parties have to pay is a lower success in elections to the proportional system because in these elections, these parties suffer from their lack of profile. They are parties of the moderate right, in a very polarized context of a hard left and a hard right, it is difficult for a moderate speech to be audible. It is difficult to mobilize the electorate, so these two parties are in a position that is exactly the opposite of that of the SVP. They suffer in proportional representation elections, but they take full advantage of elections to the majority system.

The success of political parties varies greatly depending on whether one is talking about elections to the National Council or the Council of States, but this has concrete implications for the legislative activity of parliament. The two chambers in Switzerland have exactly the same prerogatives, which means that both chambers must agree on the same text. No law can be passed in Switzerland until it is adopted in the same content by both chambers.

With such a difference in the composition of the two chambers with the UDC very strong in the national and weak in the states, the PLR and the PDC quite weak in the national, but very strong in the states; these differences in the composition of the chambers will result in differences in political preferences in both chambers and in differences in the political majority in both chambers. So, we can expect increased tensions between the two chambers in the next Parliament because their composition means that they will give rise to legislation that is not the same and therefore we will have to reach an agreement. There are mechanisms for back and forth between the two chambers, perhaps conciliation to perhaps reach a solution. We can also imagine that these tensions between the two chambers could lead to blockages, in other words, we cannot agree and we stand by our positions and therefore we will no longer even be able to legislate. It is not a frequent case, but it is one that could well happen.

We can thus see how electoral rules that lead to highly variable partisan relations depending on the electoral rules in force have consequences on the legislative activity of parliament in a context of integral bicameralism or perfect bicameralism as we know it in Switzerland.

Structure of the cleavages[edit | edit source]

We often hear about cleavage, such as the röstigraben, which is the linguistic cleavage in Switzerland between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland, we sometimes speak of the urban-rural cleavage. What is this? What is it?

Political cleavage: definition[edit | edit source]

Strictly speaking, Bartolini and Mair in their book Identity, Competition, and Electoral Availability published in 1990 talk about political cleavage if and only if three conditions are met. A political divide presupposes the presence of three components:

  1. An empirical structural component that is a difference, a social vision or a cultural vision. In Switzerland this is very obvious with several languages, several religions, different social classes. So the differences will be empirically identifiable. It is quite obvious to distinguish an Alemannic from a novel, for example. We must be able to observe empirically a social or cultural difference between groups.
  2. The second component is cultural-normative. These distinct groups must each have beliefs, values, preferences specific to their group and different from the values, beliefs and preferences of other groups. If there are other different groups, but they have the same preferences, there is no potential for a cleavage. If Germanic and novels had exactly the same preferences, beliefs and values, there would be no possible division between linguistic regions. Each of these groups must have their own values, beliefs and preferences and these values, beliefs and preferences must be different from those of the other group or groups. Even if there are these two conditions, there is still no political cleavage, there is a cleavage that is potential, but not obvious.
  3. To make the cleavage manifest, the third condition is required, which is a political-organisational component. We need a political party or organization that articles and mobilizes the cleavage. If there is no organization that makes the cleavage visible, that politically articulates the cleavage, then nothing happens, there is a potential cleavage, but no one makes it manifest. If we take the example of the linguistic divide in Switzerland, according to this definition, stricto sensu, the linguistic divide does not exist because there is no organization, no political party in Susse that has been explicitly created to defend the interests of French-speaking Switzerland against the German majority or to defend the interests of the German majority against French-speaking Switzerland. There is only one exception, which is the Lega ticinesi. The Lega was created in Ticino, among other things, to defend the interests of the Italian-speaking minority vis-à-vis the federal government of Bern. Otherwise, there is no linguistic divide according to this strict definition. Afterwards, there may be popular votes where the differences and preferences between Germanic and Novels are obvious, but there is no organization that articulates this cleavage.

There are two types of political cleavages, traditional and more recent. The study of cleavages has already been done since the 1950s and in particular by Lipset and Rokkan in Party systems and vote alignments: Cross-national perspectives published in 1967. Lipset and Rokkan showed the historical evolution of the four traditional cleavages existing in most European countries, including Switzerland, namely the religious cleavage, the central-periphery cleavage (also known as linguistic in Switzerland), the class cleavage and the urban-rural cleavage.

These cleavages are linked either to the process of industrialization as is the case with the class cleavage or the urban-rural cleavage, or they have historically linked to the creation of the nation-state and thus to the homogenizing attempts of the centre, which would be the centre-periphery or linguistic cleavage, possibly the religious cleavage.

It is the traditional cleavages that are more or less important in the countries. Generally, it is considered that their importance to decrease over time. For example, the religious divide was very strong in Switzerland in the 19th century and it was even the religious divide that gave rise to modern Switzerland. The Sonderbund war was largely a war on a religious basis and this cleavage subsequently lost much of its importance during the 19th and 20th centuries. The class divide has been somewhat reformulated, but overall, these traditional divisions have tended to lose importance over time.

These traditional cleavages have lost importance over time, allowing new cleavages to emerge. We are talking about pacifying traditional divisions. This pacification has created space for the affirmation and emergence of new cleavages, including the materialist-postmaterialist cleavage.

The materialist-postmaterialist divide is a divide that was identified in the 1980s and 1990s. It would be due to generational renewal and in particular to the specific experiences that post-war generations have had as opposed to generations born before the Second World War. These post-war generations would have known an environment first without war and pacifism, and above all an environment in which education has greatly increased, society has emancipated itself and this has favoured the emergence of postmaterialist values. This means more values of personal fulfilment and also values more favourable to the protection of the environment against economic growth. Environmental conflict is often linked to the emergence of the materialist-postmaterialist divide.

The other new cleavage is the opening cleavage - tradition, sometimes referred to as integration - demarcation or modernization - tradition. This cleavage of values is an increasingly important cleavage in Swiss politics that began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s and was further reinforced in the 2000s and 2010, which is the opposition between those who favour international openness, solidarity and the modernisation of society against those who favour the defence of traditions, Switzerland's traditional independence and, for example, the refusal to open the European Union. This is the normative dimension of this new gap between openness and tradition.

This cleavage is considered to have sociostructural roots. This is what is also considered to be the losing - winning cleavage, which is the same as the opening - tradition cleavage, except that the opening - tradition cleavage is at the level of values, while the winning - losing cleavage is its translation from the sociological point of view of the individual characteristics of the people who carry these opening values on one side or the values of tradition and withdrawal on the other.

Summary of the introduction to Swiss politics[edit | edit source]

First, we have seen that the institutional context of Switzerland's policies strongly influences federal elections. Federal elections are very marked by the characteristics of the Swiss institutional system, in particular the role of the system of government, direct democracy, federalism and the electoral system, as well as the conjunction between the electoral system and federalism.

This has a strong influence on the context of elections, not only for political parties, but also for voters. This already influences the party offer and the way they will change these parties.

One might wonder why we are talking about federal elections when we have stopped saying that federal elections in Switzerland are not important. There is a classic view that parliamentary elections in Switzerland are not very important or at least they are much less important than elsewhere. This classic view continues to be at least partially valid. Parliamentary elections are of little importance in Switzerland because they have little influence on the composition of the government, they are competed by direct democracy and because of the fragmentation of the party system and federalism, changes in the balance of power between large parties are unlikely in Switzerland. The fragmentation of the party system, this federalist division, limits the possibilities that a party, all of a sudden, will grow very strongly everywhere.

There is a revised view of this classic view. Admittedly, major changes are unlikely in Switzerland from one election to the next. On 18 October 2015, there was talk of an "SVP tidal wave" for a 3% gain at the national level. This is not huge, but it does not prevent this 3% from being added to all the gains that have been made before and therefore even if there is no major change from one election to another, there may be major changes in two or three elections. The SVP has increased its electoral strength by more than 2.5 times in the space of 20 years. Major changes are possible in Switzerland. This increases the importance of elections.

Linked to the rise of the SVP, there has been an increase in the polarisation of Swiss politics, namely an increasing polarisation between the SVP and the left, and therefore an increasing ideological distance between the poles. As a result, Swiss politics, not only elections, but also day-to-day in parliament when parliament makes laws, Swiss politics has become more conflictual and competitive, there is much more competition between parties than before. This is much more pronounced both in the election campaign and in the legislative activity of parliament. So politics has become much more confrontational, much more competitive, which increases the interest and importance of parliamentary elections.

Researchers have shown that the party system in Switzerland is now one of the most polarized in Europe. It is nevertheless striking that in the country of consensus, we actually have one of the highest levels of polarisation in Europe and it has increased sharply over the last twenty years.

On the other hand, it is true that parliamentary elections do not have much impact on the composition of the government in Switzerland, but we now know that parliamentary elections have an influence on at least the seventh seat and perhaps the sixth in the future. There is at least one seat at stake in each election, not the entire government, but it does increase the importance of parliamentary elections.

Finally, where federalism reduced the importance of national elections because federalism had the effect of increasing the weight of local issues, local considerations and cantonal campaigns in national elections, there has been a nationalization of the party system, a nationalization of elections and therefore national parliamentary elections are now much more national than they were twenty years ago and this has also increased the importance of national elections. They are less marked than before by cantonal specificities, they are more national than before.

All this contributes to increasing the interest and importance of parliamentary elections in Switzerland.

How does this translate into Swiss politics?[edit | edit source]

Political values: average position of the party electorate. Source: Selects data (Pascal Sciarini).

This graph shows us the average position of the electorate of the different parties in a two-dimensional space. The data on which we rely are data from opinion surveys, surveys conducted after the federal election.

Since 1995, the University of Geneva, together with other Swiss universities, has been contributing to the SELECT (Swiss election studies) survey, a survey conducted every four years and also accompanied by a post-electoral opinion survey of up to 4000 people at the Swiss level.

In this survey, the respondents in the sample are asked to indicate their preferences on axes 1 to 6 and are asked to state their vision of Switzerland.

The questions used to produce these two dimensions are, for the horizontal axis, classic redistributive questions that could be called the economic left-right divide. For the horizontal axis, the question is whether we are in favour of a Switzerland in which social spending is increased or a Switzerland in which the Confederation's social spending is reduced. The second question is whether we are in favour of a Switzerland in which the tax on high incomes is increased or in favour of a Switzerland in which the tax on high incomes is reduced. Each time, it is left-wing or right-wing preferences and then the average position of voters is calculated, which stipulates for which party they voted on this axis.

Ditto for the vertical axis. There are two questions behind the representation, which is first and foremost a question on foreigners, namely whether we are in favour of a Switzerland that gives equal opportunities to foreigners and Swiss people or whether we are in favour of a Switzerland that favours Swiss people on a scale from 1 to 6. The second question is whether we are in favour of a Switzerland that joins the European Union or a Switzerland that goes it alone.

The horizontal axis is an axis "for" or "against" the State or "for" or "against" the market. It is a simplification, but it is generally done in this way. The vertical axis is the axis of closure or tradition and opening.

The average position of the various party electorates in 1995 and 2011 appears. We see that there is an electorate from left to left with the Socialist Party and the Greens, an SVP electorate at the bottom right and in the middle the moderate right electorate.

If we draw a median line which is the regression line in the middle of the points, the left - right axis appears. The left-right dimension in Switzerland is a synthesis of these two dimensions with the left-right economic axis and the new value axis tradition - openness, integration - demarcation. The parties are not perfectly aligned on the line, but it is quite striking to see that we can summarize the information.

It should also be noted that the SVP electorate is barely different from other electorates in terms of the electoral dimension. On this horizontal dimension, the SVP electorate is in fact almost less on the right, less economically liberal than the PLR electorate. What makes the SVP electorate specific and what makes the SVP party specific is clearly the position on the second dimension of politics. This dimension explains the SVP's very strong profile, i.e. issues relating to European integration, asylum policy, immigration policy and Swiss sovereignty. Other studies also clearly show that it is the SVP's very strong profile on this dimension of openness that is at the root of its electoral success, which is what is key in explaining the SVP's success and not its position on the economic stakes.

We also see that in all parties, almost without exception, there was a decrease in opening preferences between 1995 and 2011. The electorate of almost all parties has moved downwards and this is partly and largely due to the decline in support for European integration. The question of whether we are in favour of accession to the European Union in 1995, between 35% and 45% of people answered "yes", barely 10% or 20% today.

The point is to show the very great importance now in Swiss politics of this new dimension of position on an axis of openness - tradition. This conflict satisfies the three conditions presented above, namely an empirical structural component, a cultural normative component and an organizational political component that defines a divide.

In this graph, we have seen the overall synthetic image at the Swiss level. But if we go down to the cantonal level, we will have very different configurations. The Swiss cantons are highly variable from one another and very different from one another in terms of cleavage structure and therefore party system. In the Catholic cantons, there are specific divisions that are not the same as in the non-Catholic cantons. In cantons that are very urban such as Geneva, there are not the same divisions as in the more rural cantons. Thus, this produces very different party systems from one canton to another and this is what, in turn, contributes to the strong variations in the party systems existing in Switzerland at the cantonal level and thus contributes to the fragmentation of the party system at the national level.

If we had cantons that were all identical with each other, if all the cantons were miniature reproductions of Switzerland, we would have the same cleavages in all the cantons and the same cleavages at the Swiss level. This is not the case. It is because there is this wide variety of cleavages from one canton to another that we end up with a very fragmented party system at the federal level because all these cantonal specificities influence and mark the party system at the national level.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

  • Bartolini, Stefano & Mair, Peter (1990). Identity, Competition, and Electoral Availability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bornschier, Simon (2007). Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right. The New Cultural Conflict in Western Europe. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Brunner, Matthias & Sciarini, Pascal (2002). L'opposition ouverture-traditions. In Hug, Simon & Sciarini, Pascal (éds.), Changements de valeurs et nouveaux clivages politiques en Suisse. Paris: L'Harmattan, pp. 29-93.
  • Downs, Anthony (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Duverger, Maurice (1951). Les partis politiques. Paris: Seuil
  • Inglehart, Ronald (1977). The silent revolution: Changing values and political styles among western publics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Kerr, Henri (1987). The Swiss Party System: Steadfast and Changing. In Daalder, Hans (ed.), Party Systems in Denmark, Austria, Switzerland the Netherlands and Belgium. London: Frances Pinter.
  • Kriesi, Hanspeter, et al. (2008). West European politics in the Age of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Berelson, Bernard & Gaudet, Hazel (1944). The People's Choice. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Oesch, Daniel & Rennwald, Line (2010). La disparition du vote ouvrier? Le vote de classe et les partis de gauche en Suisse. In Nicolet, Sarah & Sciarini, Pascal (éds.) Le destin électoral de la gauche. Le vote socialiste et vert en Suisse. Genève: Georg, pp. 219-256.
  • Sciarini, Pascal (2011). La politique suisse au fil du temps. Genève: Georg.
  • Sciarini, Pascal, Ballmer-Cao, Thanh-Huyen & Lachat, Romain (2001). Genre, âge et participation politique: les élections fédérales de 1995 dans le canton de Genève. Revue suisse de science politique 7(3): 83-98.
  • Helvetia Historica. “Pourquoi Existe-t-Il Des Demi-Cantons?”, 21 Jan. 2018, .

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Sciarini, P. (2015) Les deux principales causes de la sous-représentation de l'UDC dans les gouvernements cantonaux: un profil trop marqué et des sections insuffisamment établies url: http://www.bochsler.eu/media/sciarini_bochsler_udc05.pdf