All you need to know about Switzerland: government

July 10, 2010, 10 Comments

Annual photo of the Bundesrat with the Federal Chancellor

The Swiss TV news last night spent 15 minutes reporting and analysing the resignation of Moritz Leuenberger, the transport minister. True, he has been in the government for 15 years, and transport is very important to the Swiss, but even so it seemed a bit too in-depth. After all, in Britain transport ministers come and go as regularly as trains to Edinburgh – there have been 13 British ones in the time that Mr Leuenberger served. So why all the fuss? It’s all because Switzerland is governed by committee. Thanks to proportional representation and multiple parties, almost every ruling council at every level is a coalition of some sort – and the national government is no exception.  

The government itself is known as the Bundesrat, or Federal Council. It consists of seven members and is a permanent coalition, with no one party or person ever in control. Each Federal Councillor is in charge of a department of state, such as Finance or Foreign Affairs or, in Mr Leuenberger’s case, Transport, Environment, Energy, and Communications. Quite a mouthful and quite a collection of roles. My personal favourite is the ministry of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports; Switzerland is possibly the only country to have a Defence Minister responsible for PE. The Councillors take it in turns to be president for a year, while still running their own department. Not that the president has any more power, but someone has to shake hands with visiting leaders and make a speech on 1 August. At the moment the president is Doris Leuthard, the economic affairs minister, but only until 31 December. Moritz Leuenberger had been due to be Mr President for a third time next year. Perhaps he’d just had enough handshaking?  

The Bundesrat is elected every four years by parliament, not by a popular vote – the one time in Swiss politics when the people do not have a direct say. This is supposed to prevent all that squabbling that afflicts other countries, usually called a presidential campaign, as well as preventing party, linguistic, or regional loyalties affecting the result. It also made things exceedingly boring and predictable, at least until recently. Before 2003, a ‘magic formula’ was used so that the Bundesrat as a whole represented the four main political parties and the different regions. And since Federal Councillors generally stay, and are re-elected, for years until they retire, resign or die, parliament was often little more than a rubber stamp. 

Since 2003 things have been rather chaotic, at least in Swiss terms, and all because the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (known as SVP, or Schweizerische Volkspartei, in German) has been playing politics. It ousted a sitting Councillor, then lost one of its own seats, stormed out of the government, then came back meekly a year later. As a result, there are now five parties represented in the Bundesrat, making it look like alphabet soup: SVP, SP, CVP, FDP, BDP. The big question is, who will replace the resigning Councillor? Mr Leuenberger is from the SP, or Social Democratic Party, but will his party retain its seat? We won’t know until parliament reconvenes after the summer break, and a summer is a long time in politics, even in Switzerland. 

Until then, here are a few Bundesrat facts:  

  • There have been 114 Councillors since the system was introduced in 1848
  • Canton Zurich has had 20 Councillors, Canton Vaud 14 and Canton Bern 12
  • The cantons of Jura, Nidwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz and Uri have never been represented
  • The first woman to be elected was Elisabeth Kopp (1984); there are currently three women
  • Ticino has had 7 Councillors, but an Italian speaker has not been elected since 1999
  • Nineteen have died in office, one of them a suicide, none an assassination
  • The longest serving Councillor is Karl Schenk from Bern; he was there for 31 years, 7 months & 6 days (and president six times), until dying in office in 1895 aged 74


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10 Comments on "All you need to know about Switzerland: government"

  1. SwissGuy Tuesday July 13th, 2010 at 03:22 PM · Reply

    The election actually happens in December. Elections of a new Bundesrat are one of the few events in Swiss politics that are televised live. And they are one of few events in Swiss politics that are actually thrilling (by Swiss standards – read: somewhat interesting):

    Since the unwritten rules of the “magic formula” not only dictate from which party a candidate has to come, but also what gender, language, origin he or she has to have, the picking of elegible candidates is quite intricate and the subsequent election can be fraught with tactic coups from the various parties, making for some excitement and – rarely – for some surprise…

    • swisswatching Tuesday July 13th, 2010 at 08:29 PM · Reply

      I remember watching Blocher get unelected while eating breakfast. Such drama at 8am; it seemed so unSwiss. Then came Maurer and Burhhalter – not quite as thrilling but good to watch. It’s the only time you get real politics in Switzerland. Roll on December!

    • Katharina Sunday July 18th, 2010 at 02:47 AM · Reply

      They should do what they do here in the US: have two satellite and cable tv channels (CSPAN and CPSAN2) where every single session of the parliamaet is broadcast life. CSPAN does congress and CPSAN 2 does Senat. (Nationalrat and Staenderat in swiss speak).

      what do you see: most seats are….empty.
      you fall asleep before the current speaker does the same.

      it is good though, because you see how retarded these discussions are and what we do pay tax money for for these people not to do their jobs.

      they are hired by us voters and forgot that we were there employers and not the other way around.

      at least the US is honest enough to broadcast this live so that everyone can see this masquerade as a sad farce of what once was called democracy.

      meanwhile the swiss had a discussion about live broadcast of the sessions. with all the analyses crossed and teed as they do so well. the result:

      we don’t want transparency, so no broadcast. Lack of transparency is the main issue in Switzerland with the effect that cronyism is worse than in a latin american country (which by now includes the US as well 🙂 )

      mr leuenberger was honest enough to take his hat himself.
      as to the others:

      as Elaine said in the soup nazi episode of Seinfeld:


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