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Beauty vs the beast in Bern

March 2, 2011, 7 Comments

This Sunday there’s a by-election in Canton Bern that wouldn’t normally get too much coverage, even in a country that lives, eats and breathes politics. It’s the second round of voting for Bern’s vacant seat in the Ständerat, or Council of States, the upper house of the Federal Parliament. This is the smaller and more exclusive chamber, viewed as a brake or voice of reason against the cut-and-thrust of the Nationalrat, or lower chamber. Usually its elections just aren’t that exciting. But this one is different, for two reasons.

First, 2011 is a general election year in Switzerland and the parties are already jostling for votes and influence. Canton Bern is one of the key battlegrounds for that main event in October, so this by-election is being used by the main parties as a trial run for the real deal in seven months. What happens in Bern on Sunday could go some way to predicting the national result in the autumn.

Second, the two biggest parties are going head-to-head with their star candidates. For once it is all about personalities not policies, which is quite unusual for Swiss elections. The right-wing SVP is hoping its Vice-President Adrian Amstutz will woo the voters, if not with his hard-line views, then with his looks: he’s known as the ‘Richard Gere of Swiss politics’. Up against him is the darling of the left, Ursula Wyss, leader of the Social Democrats in the Nationalrat, who stands for almost everything the SVP hate. No wonder they often portray her as their political bete noire. But who is the beauty, and who is the beast, in this contest?

The by-election was precipitated by Simonetta Sommeruga winning a place in the government last year, meaning she had to vacate her seat in the Ständerat. That should make Wyss the favourite to retain the seat for the Social Democrats, but in fact Amstutz won the first round of voting three weeks ago. No-one got close to the necessary 50.1% majority, so the other candidates were eliminated and the top two went through to this run-off. And that’s what makes it interesting. It’s unlikely that either of these two parties will manage to get their voters out in greater numbers, so the winner will be decided by the voters from the other parties.

Who will voters from the middle parties choose? Which is the lesser of these two evils? It could all come down to how they see this result affecting the chances of their own parties’ candidates in October. Both the FDP and BDP (it doesn’t really matter what they stand for, just think roughly right of centre) are under threat from a resurgent right wing, so helping Wyss to win this week might prompt the left to return the favour in the autumn. But the opposite could equally be true, so it’s no surprise that the FDP hasn’t officially endorsed either candidate.

With two candidates so diametrically opposite on every serious issue, it’s a fascinating contest. Or at least as fascinating as any Swiss election ever is. Each side sees the other as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but it’s up to Bern’s voters to decide who will win this beauty contest.

7 Comments on "Beauty vs the beast in Bern"

  1. Fergus Miller Thursday March 3rd, 2011 at 01:37 PM · Reply

    The “Swiss” are going too far to the right at the moment and I would be surprised if SP win this one, do you have Swiss citizenship Diccon?
    You have a healthy interest in the politics of Switzerland, are you planning on being more involved?

    Regards
    Fergus

    • swisswatching Thursday March 3rd, 2011 at 08:36 PM · Reply

      Fergus, I’m not a Swiss citizen (still 6 years to wait for that) so can’t vote. But that doesn’t stop me taking a healthy interest, not just because the political system here is in itself interesting but also because politics affects us all. I can’t understand people who don’t vote. You only have to look at what’s happening in North Africa to realise what political freedom means to so many people. Maybe in Western Europe that’s taken for granted?

  2. Fergus Miller Thursday March 3rd, 2011 at 04:50 PM · Reply

    OK swisswatching let me put it this way. “Who will voters from the middle parties choose?” you ask.

    There is no “middle” in Switzerland any longer, Switzerland is heading for the right, so therefore I say Adrian Amstutz will woo the voters!

    BTW I vote Left just because there is no middle ground!

    • swisswatching Thursday March 3rd, 2011 at 08:38 PM · Reply

      I fear you may be right (as in correct!). When Sommeruga won the seat for the SP, the political landscape was very different. With everything shifting rightwards, it’s hard to see Wyss winning, but tactical voting may yet hand her a slim majority.

  3. Adrian Saturday March 5th, 2011 at 01:52 PM · Reply

    Loving it that you characterize FDP as “doesn’t really matter what they stand for!” Guess there’s no better way to describe the (sad) decline of Switzerland’s founding party and their values 🙂

    • Fergus Miller Saturday March 5th, 2011 at 05:47 PM · Reply

      Yes it is a sad decline for a party that I would vote for under normal circumstances, but they shot themselves in the foot when the became too friendly with SVP.

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