The Grass is Ever-So-Slightly Greener in the Swiss Political Garden

, by Alexis Vannier, translated by Grace Baxendine

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The Grass is Ever-So-Slightly Greener in the Swiss Political Garden
A Swiss flag Photo credits: Pixabay.

The Swiss not only voted in their referenda; on 20th October, a general election for this chocolate-loving country also took place. Rarely has a vote seen such political chaos. Whilst some politicians still put their money on excluding immigrants, others finally sided with nature. Ultimately, these lesser-political ‘garden gnomes’ will have unsettled the ‘long-established gardeners’, even if the overall political landscape of the Alpine Eden in itself remains intact.

A surprising campaign

Five million Swiss voters were called upon to renew the National Council (the lower house), the Council of States, and the upper house of Parliament. As in much of Western Europe, one of the prevalent themes was environmental politics - a somewhat surprising feature in an electorate more used to the issue of immigration.

The latter theme is a favourite of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP - also known as Democratic Union of the Centre), which has won every election since 1999 and which, in 2014, supported the controversial referendum which led to the EU threatening to exclude Switzerland from Erasmus. Since then, immigration has become a secondary concern for voters.

These elections, however, come at a time when negotiations with the European Union on an institutional framework agreement had been bogged down for five years. The accession process was only formally interrupted by the government in 2016, 24 years after the marginal victory (50.3%) of the ‘no’ votes in the referendum to join the European Economic Area (EEA), which took place in 1992.

The campaign has also been marked by some unusual extravagances. A candidate from the Christian Democratic People’s Party considered it wise not only to visit North Korea, but also to praise the merits of its economic system. Voters eventually allowed him to spend more time in Pyongyang by relieving him of his parliamentary seat. The Christian Democratic Party used a very unorthodox campaign technique, personally attacking opposition candidates by rigging search engines so that searchers were led to more aggressive links. Party leaders quickly disassociated themselves from these unusual practices.

Greens bloom, Conservatives wither

The first observation from these elections concerns the abstention rate, which reached 45%. Federal elections have failed to mobilise more than half of total voters since 1975.

For the sixth consecutive time, it was the populist SVP party that finished on top, with more than 25% of the votes. Nevertheless, its share of the vote dropped by almost 4%, and the party lost 12 of its 200 seats in Parliament. The Swiss Socialist Party (PSS) came in second, with 16.8% of the votes, dropping four MPs. Liberals and Christian Democrats also lost some of their representatives.

In their biggest leap in 20 years, the Greens, the left-wing environmentalist party party, increased their score by 6.1% and gained 17 MPs, taking its representation up to 28 seats. Bizarrely enough, in a country where money is as abundant as chocolate, there is a liberal environmentalist party, which essentially means that capitalism puts on a ‘little green hat’. The “Liberal” Greens thus gathered 7.8% of the vote and gained 16 elected MPs. This is all the rarer in outer Jura region, where both green parties, like the PSS, are support EU membership .

The Greens seem to be the great winners of this election, even if, it should be remembered, they make up less than a quarter of the seats in Parliament. The great Green wave, praised by much of the European media, is still only a few new seeds in a very traditional garden.

A second round will be needed to distribute the few missing seats to the Council of States on 3rd November. When we analyse these results geographically, we can see that the western cantons of the country, which are French-speaking, voted mainly for the left and green parties, whilst the German-speaking centre remained a stronghold of the conservative SVP. The West, more urbanised with the cantons of Basel and Geneva, represented the solid core of the camp which favored joining the EEA in 1992.

The new composition of the National Council will make the formation of the Federal Council difficult. This collegial entity carries out the missions of Head of Government and Head of the Confederation, and is composed of seven seats, including a president who only has representational functions. ‘The Magic Formula’ is a tacit rule for distributing seats, according to the make-up of Parliament.

Until recently, there were two SVP Ministers, two Socialists, two Radical Liberals and one Christian Democrat. With the Greens having the Liberals and overtaken the Christian Democrats, it would be surprising that this composition wasn’t altered. Only time will tell.

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