Quick guide to the Swiss elections

October 18, 2011, 19 Comments

On Sunday Switzerland votes for a new parliament. But Swiss elections aren’t like most others. It’s not a case of sitting up until 4am watching the results, waiting for a party to pass the finish line. For one thing most people will have already voted (either by post or in person before polling day) so the polls close at noon on Sunday; that means the results start coming in during the afternoon. More importantly, there is no winner. Swiss elections aren’t about producing a single winning party or creating a new government overnight. Things are much more consensual – and slower – than that. So here’s a quick guide to what is actually happening on Sunday.

All 246 seats in parliament are up for election – 200 in the lower house (or National Council), where the seats are divided up by cantonal population, and 46 in the upper house (or Council of States), where it’s two seats per canton. For more on the electoral process see this previous post. Or to see who you’d vote for, do the Smartvote test.

No party ever gets a majority in parliament. Thanks to the world’s most complex proportional representation and a multitude of parties, the seats are usually divided between 12 or 13 parties. The real race comes down to the Big Four plus the Middle Three, so we can forget about the others. Here are the main players (with their initials in German and current standings):

    • SVP – Swiss People’s Party (29.3%) The far right party that makes Mrs Thatcher look like a softy liberal. But Mrs T wouldn’t get a look in as this is essentially a man’s party, not least in that it has a one-track mind (immigration is its only campaigning theme) and likes to spend money to make itself looks more powerful.
    • SP – Social Democrats (19.9%) The main left-wing party, full of idealists and those unhappy with Switzerland being a money-making machine. It should be capitalising on the economic crisis but hasn’t really had a good campaign, and doesn’t quite know how to respond to the SVP’s electoral machine and millionaire backers.
    • FDP – Free Democrats (15.2%) The founding party of modern Switzerland but its gradual decline shows no sign of stopping. Too closely identified with the banks, too scared of becoming SVP-lite and too unsure of its position somewhere to the right of centre, it’s likely to be the clear loser, in terms of votes won compared to the last election in 2007.
    • CVP – Christian Democrats (14.2%) The more-centre-than-right party which is suffering from that being a crowded spot on the political spectrum. Do voters know what it stands for anymore? Has anyone seen a single CVP poster recently? It has one of the most popular government ministers in Doris Leuthard but is practically invisible.
    • Greens (9.3%) Always the bridesmaids but never the bride. They may have a similar share of the vote as their German cousins, but the Swiss Greens are still waiting for their breakthrough. This was supposed to be their year, with Fukushima propelling them upwards, but they are still stuck below 10%.
    • GLP – Green Liberals (4.9%) They are green and they are liberal, hence the name, and really the only centre-left party. Stealing votes from everyone, especially the Greens, they look set to treble their share and may pass the magic 5%. But in the complicated world of Swiss politics, that doesn’t mean they will end up in government.
    • BDP – Conservative Democrats (3.6%) The newest party, formed after the SVP split in 2007, but still not quite a national player. Cynics see it as a one-woman affair, thanks to the popular Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf who is the party’s sole star. But will her coat tails be enough to help the party survive on the centre-right?

If the standings stay as those poll figures suggest, then it will be the GLP and BDP that have ‘won’ at the expense of the FDP and the Greens. Of course the SVP will crow about being the biggest party, and the SP will be relieved to be around 20%, but both those big cheeses are essentially treading water.

The question is: if no government is elected on Sunday, then what’s it all about? Partly it’s an exercise in democracy, even though Switzerland has quite a few of those every year! Electing a parliament is a fundamental part of any democracy, even in one where the people often have the ultimate say through the referendum process. Perhaps that’s why voter turnout in Swiss general elections hasn’t been above 50% since 1975. This time looks likely to continue that sad trend.

But in fact, this election is mainly about electing a government. The seven-member Federal Council is elected by parliament (not directly by the people), so clearly the political make-up of parliament is crucial – the parties with the most seats have the best chance of winning places in the Council. That election takes place on 14 December and is much more exciting, because you get real winners, bad losers, political intrigue, backstabbing, and settling of scores – all live on breakfast television. It’s the one time Swiss politics is truly interesting to watch. This Sunday is, in effect, merely the overture to the main act.

If you want to experience the Swiss election on Sunday, I will be tweeting about it as the results come in: follow me on Twitter (or follow #swissvote). I’ll be doing the same on December 14 for the Federal Council elections. So let the votes roll in!

19 Comments on "Quick guide to the Swiss elections"

  1. Federico Rocha Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 04:00 PM · Reply

    Do you know how does it work here in terms of what political party gets benefited if people don’t vote? Or what political party gets more affected by the non-voting? Any ideas, theories?

    • swisswatching Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 04:22 PM · Reply

      I think it’s the same as in other countries: low turnout benefits those parties with the most comitted supporters, ie at the extremes. It’s generally the centre and/or less vocal parties that suffer as their supporters are less likely to vote. You can see that in referendum results too (eg the minaret vote), where it’s those who feel strongly about the issue bother to vote. In the UK the weather on the day can also play a large role (which is why British elections are often in spring/summer) but that’s less of an issue in Switzerland, where most people vote by post.

      • Federico Rocha Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 04:28 PM · Reply

        In that case who do you think/guess gains a bit more if people don’t vote, the far right or the main left?

        • swisswatching Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 04:36 PM · Reply

          The far right. I think SVP supporters are far more likely to vote than almost any other party, which means with a low turnout, their percentage of the vote goes up disproportionately.

          In the last election of 2007, of 7.7 million people living in Switzerland 5 million were entitled to vote, and just less than half actually did. From them, 29% voted for the SVP which sounds impressive until you translate it into real people: about 700,000 or less than 10% of the whole population. In other words a small minority (and over half the size of the number of foreigners = 21%) but that 10% makes far more noise, spends more money and controls the debate more effectively than the other 90%.

      • Federico Rocha Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 04:54 PM · Reply

        Wow! When you see it like that….I just wonder why the media doesn’t choose this as a hot topic…You explain very well why voting hasn’t exceeded 50 % since 1975…but are there any more reasons people don’t bother? I’ve been told a couple of times that the media, in the Swiss-German part at least, tends to go left a bit which I just can’t see can you?
        Love your blog by the way, keep on rocking…

        • swisswatching Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 04:59 PM · Reply

          Three other reasons:
          – voter fatigue, because the Swiss are called on to vote so often about everything
          – voter apathy, because if nothing is going to change as a result of voting then why bother
          – voter contentment, because the Swiss are quite happy with their world and their lives so there’s no need to change anything
          And i agree that the Swiss-German media don’t seem that left-leaning. If it were, then surely the SVP wouldn’t do so well?

      • Federico Rocha Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 05:14 PM · Reply

        I just don’t see the media doing its job to be honest, no pressure of any kind to anybody on anything…
        In general I think Swiss are more right than what they can possibly imagine…which is not necessarily a bad thing but it’s a hard thing to admit I guess, not only here…

      • Twan Laan Wednesday October 19th, 2011 at 06:45 AM · Reply

        Another possible reason: voting looks relatively complicated. Voters receive a thick envelope full of paper, instructions, promotion material of all the parties, and, yes if you look well, you’ll find a voting form as well 🙂 I can imagine that many people don’t take the effort to find all out how it works (though if you know the system, it is in fact quite easy)

  2. Colin Wheeler Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 04:11 PM · Reply

    I think many folks main relief will be the posters coming down. The Swiss folk that I have spoken to the election have not seemed madly excited about the whole affair, both young and old. I did manage to get one or two bets at least on changes in the top parties.

    • swisswatching Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 04:24 PM · Reply

      Swiss elections rarely excite people! But I think the top two parties will stay almost exactly the same as last time. It’s the middle where things are changing. You could say that Swiss politics is rather like a soufflé at the moment, always in danger of a collapsing centre.

      • Christian Langenegger Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 07:46 PM · Reply

        I like the soufflé analogy. Yes, we definitely have a system in crisis an no party capable of dealing with it.

        Politically Switzerland has become that naughty child, that no one has disciplined. It’s so self-unaware that anytime someone says something to the country, about things it ought to do, it gets insulted and angry – not because it’s right, but precisely because it is in the wrong.

        The best thing for Switzerland would be to have a very long sighted party, willing to make cuts where they are needed, and spend in other places, while also helping the public to understand the country’s role internationally.

        An interesting note here. In the Tages-Anzeiger there was an article about the amount of ballots that are invalid because candidates’ names are spelt wrong. Furthermore, many people don’t even know who is running for what office and to which party they belong. With its direct democracy Switzerland asks for a great deal of political involvement of its people, unfortunately, as the numbers show, it has anything but a very politically active population.

        Thank you for the post.

  3. Evamaria Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 08:14 PM · Reply

    I have voted in every election that I was in the country for since I turned 18, except one where I’d just moved and they hadn’t sent me my envelope yet.

    I seriously don’t get why people don’t vote – it’s a privilege to be able to do so (not just politicians but on concrete issues), and as far as I’m concerned you lose the right to bitch about the politics if you don’t vote. Also, it takes only a few minutes of one’s time.

    • swisswatching Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 10:28 PM · Reply

      I couldn’t agree more! When you think of all the people in the world who can’t vote, and so many people here don’t bother. What amazes me is so many young Swiss women don’t, even though their grandmothers had to find so hard to win that right in 1971.

  4. SwissGuy Wednesday October 19th, 2011 at 01:47 PM · Reply

    If you’re not used to it, the Swiss system might appear complicated; However, 1) It’s perfectly logic once you understand it; 2) The Swiss get it explained in school; and 3) It gives voters a huge amount of democratic choice (and control):

    For example; Unlike in the USA, Germany and France, the electoral districts are not single candidate districts – each Canton is one electoral district and therefore gets the share of parliament seats proportional to its population.

    That means people e.g. in the Canton of Bern get to vote for 26 of the 200 parliament seats. So you get for example 26 blank lines that you can fill freely with candidate names from different parties. You’re not forced to vote for an entire party list and are free to drop candidates you dont like and add other candidates from other parties.

    I think the political system in the USA would be much less corrupt and dysfunctional if people got to vote like this (of course states like NY and TX are too big – having to vote for over 50 seats in just one state is too much, so they’d have to create smaller voting districts – ideally with 10 to 25 seats each).

    But in the USA, it would mean that the two party system with all its disadvantages would almost immediately disappear as people could make more differentiated choices. In a multi party system, seats can’t be bought as easily just by spending loads of money for one party. So the system would become less money-controlled and corrupt.

    As it is now, the US system is -solely due to its voting system- rigged to be a two party system, which frankly speaking is not much more democratic than the one party systems in communist countries.

    (Of course, such a system would most probably also act more responsible when it comes to finances and public debt.)

    Some food for thought…

  5. ericdondero Saturday October 22nd, 2011 at 11:43 PM · Reply

    You’re doing a great service for us political junkies. We’ve been covering the Swiss elections at We’re big fans of SVP and Oskar Freysinger. We’re headlining him right now.

    I’ll be paying attention to your Tweats tomorrow for sure!

    Eric Dondero, Publisher

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