COM 01/2016

No Regime Change Just Yet?  A Comment on the 2015 Swiss Elections

Clive Church, Emeritus Professor of European Studies at the University of Kent, United Kingdom


The initial response to the results of the Swiss elections of 18 October  2015  suggested to many a dramatic shift to the right. And some observers also hinted that this was not just a matter of extra numbers but implied a paradigm shift in the nature of the Swiss democratic system. Such views were echoed after the election of a second right-winger to the government on 9 December. However, it is always unwise to prophesy too radical changes in Swiss politics.

Certainly in October the Swiss People’s Party [SVP] did resume its onwards and upwards march. And nominally, there was then a right wing majority in the National Council. However, elections to the upper house somewhat gainsaid this. Thereafter too the SVP made some gestures towards consensus, which enabled it to secure the election of a second SVP Minister. However, the situation remains complicated and uncertain. So, it may be that the only certainty is that the country faces further uncertainty.

The Campaign

Although the SVP was to make more gains in the elections, it did so on the back of a singularly content free campaign, described by some as ‘depoliticised’. Indeed, by the end the only real subject of discussion seems to have been the make-up of the government and whether the SVP would have another hissy fit if it was not given a second seat. This was partly because, for once, the SVP largely eschewed the inflammatory posters which have distinguished its previous campaigns and, like many others, concentrated on dog whistle politics to win over its core supporters. Its slogans urged people to stay secure and free, in other words to resist outside challenges, notably the growing waves of refugees seeking a European escape from Eastern war and chaos.

In fact, the campaign did take place under the influence of external events. As was pointed out this was the first general election to be held after the outbreak of the migration crisis. And, although the country did not see any significant influx of refugees till October, the fear that the wave of migrants assaulting Europe through the Balkans would engulf Switzerland frightened many people. Moreover, in 2015 there was nothing like the Fukushima nuclear disaster to divert voter’s attention as had happened in 2011. The party also talked much about breaking the alleged hold of the centre-left in Parliament. Hence it did not really engage in detailed policy prescriptions. In particular Europe was hardly mentioned. This approach was followed by other parties many of which made noises about being tough on migrants while avoiding the sensitive subject of relations with the EU.

National Council results

On 18 October the SVP emerged with a historically unparalleled double record of 29.4% of the votes cast and 65 seats. This represented a gain of 2.8% and 11 seats on its disappointing 2011 result. So its strategy seemed to have worked. It lost no seats and strengthened its control of the political agenda. However, although it is now the largest party in most districts and continued to attract former Social Democrat voters, its main gains came in its German speaking heartland. This included seats in Appenzell AR, Aargau, Berne, Graubünden, Lucerne, Schwytz, St Gallen, Uri and Zurich. These gains probably came from having attracted new or occasional voters with right wing sympathies. It also won extra seats in the bilingual cantons of Fribourg and Valais. Four of these came from the Socialists, two from the Radicals and the rest from the centre parties. Exit polls also suggest that, while the party did well on the fringes of agglomerations, it did much less well in the big cities where its share of the vote never passed 17%. It was also somewhat weak in several smaller cantonal capitals. This points to the continuing division between two Switzerlands, one outward looking and very urban, the other introverted and more rural.

The Social Democrats came second with 18.8% and 43 seats. However, although they marginally increased their vote they still lost three seats, leading to argument about whether the party was suffering a long term decline. It was followed by the Radicals who gained 1.3% and three seats, ending with 16.4% and 33 seats. This was the first time in many years that the party had not lost votes. The Social Democrats did well in large cities, winning two seats in Zurich while losing in Aargau, Fribourg, Schwyz, Valais and Vaud. And in the biggest cities they won  over 30% of the vote. The Radicals lost seats in Appenzell AR, Neuchâtel and Uri but won in six other cantons. The Christian Democrats lost less than usual, going down by 0.7% and one seat to 11.6% and 26 seats. In fact, they still managed to win a seat in Valais though losing two, in Solothurn and Basle City.

The gains made by the SVP and the Radicals came mainly from the ecologists. In 2011 the latter had benefitted from Fukushima which had made environmental issues highly salient. Four years later fashions had changed. Hence the centrist Green Liberals lost 1.2% and 5  seats, ending with 4.6% and seven seats. The orthodox, left of centre Green party, lost 1.3% and 5 seats, finishing up with 7.1% and 10 seats. It won a seat in Basle City while losing elsewhere, largely in Western Switzerland. The other centre parties were unable to win any new seats.

Thus, the other centrist winner from 2011, the Conservative Democratic Party (BPD) lost 1.3% and two seats, ending with 4.1% and 7 seats. In other words, most of the 14 seats won by the two main right wing parties came essentially from the centre, not from the left. In fact, what was hailed in 2011 as the triumphant ‘Neu Mitte’, was reduced to its real proportions in 2015. However, the Marxist Parti Ouvrier Populaire won a seat in Neuchâtel, bringing the far left back to parliament after a longish absence.

Of the three other parties, the centrist Evangelical People’s party (EVP) VP held on to its two seats, while two regional far right formations also maintained their place. The Ticinese League kept its two seats and the Genevan Citizens’ Movement (MCG) held on to its one. However, their percentages of the overall vote were very limited because they only stood in their home territories. And, significantly, despite the talk of a ‘slippage’ to the right, neither managed to win the extra seats they had hoped for. Nonetheless the National Council ended up hosting eleven parties, showing that Swiss political pluralism is alive and well. All these suggest that the shifts in electoral support were more complicated than a simple shift to the right, so that there were limits to any shift.

Elections to the Council of States

As has often been the case, the elections for the Ständerat or Upper House turned out very differently to those in the National Council. Only 26 of its 46 seats were actually filled on the 18. The remainder were filled by second round, on the French model (except for Jura and Neuchâtel which use PR), held on the four Sundays, beginning on 1 November. From these the Radicals emerged as the clear winner with two more seats, taking their total to 13. They won in Vaud (from the Greens), in Uri (from the Green Liberals) and Nidwald (from the CVP) while also losing to the Christian Democrats in Obwald. Some of their victories were quite stunning. Thus in Aargau, the FDP president Philippe Müller turned a 7,000 deficit to the SVP at the first round into a 10,000 advantage in the second round. And, in Zurich, the Radical candidate in the second round polled twice as many as his SVP rival. The Christian Democrats also finished with 13 seats after swopping seats in the two half cantons of Unterwald. This rather reinforces Kriesi’s argument that there is now a tri-polar party system in Switzerland.

The Social Democrats could also claim one remarkable win, taking its first seat in Zurich for 32 years in the first round, at the expensed of the Green Liberals. It also held seats it might have lost such as St Gallen and Solothurn where its candidates finished up, on average, a massive 30,000 votes ahead of their rivals. At the same time the Greens’ claim to speak for the left was reduced by the defeat, and the immediate retirement from political life of Luc Recordin. The Green Liberals were even harder hit being beaten not just in Zurich, but also in Uri. They lost to the SPS and the Radicals respectively, thus depriving them of any voice in the Ständerat.

Against this the SVP could do no more than hold its five seats: two in Schwyz and one each in Glarus, Schaffhausen and Thurgau. This was 10.8% of the seats compared to the 32.5% they won in the Lower House. And when one of its star performers, Jean- François Rime, gambled on standing in the second round in Fribourg, without having entered in the first round, he was soundly beaten, ending up 21,000 behind the winners. Very often its candidates trailed badly, especially in the bigger towns and cities. As a result, they were unable to deny the BDP its single seat in Berne, with another star, in its campaign manager Albert Rosti, not even bothering to stand in the second round. However, the independent Thomas Minder, who has links with the party, did hold his seat in Schaffhausen. Sciarini is right to attribute this poor performance to the party’s hard line which is good at attracting core voters in the PR elections for the National Council but bad at encouraging the alliances needed in the very different Upper House elections. And the SVP is often seen as an oppositional party and not a natural executive player. The party’s poor showing may also reflect annoyance at what was seen as SVP arrogance after the 18 October. Whatever the reasons it was clearly a warning shot across the SVP’s bows and, to an extent, the party heeded the warning, not making too much of its aggressive style.

The Election of the Government

Once finalized, the new parliament, as a whole, had the task of electing the members of the Federal Council for the next four years. This is the keystone of the Swiss separation of powers. Election is done individually in order of seniority. The great question was whether Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who had been brought in by a coup to replace party leader Christoph Blocher in 2007, would be able to hold her seat. Given the SVP’s clamour that its newfound strength entitled it to a second seat, given the roughly proportional tradition of government composition and the BDP’s losses, this would have been difficult though not impossible. In the event, after eight no doubt draining years, she decided not to risk it and announced her retirement. This removed one political problem and opened the way to allowing the SVP to gain a second seat. And most people accepted the justice of the case, so there was no talk of organizing an alternative solution. Nonetheless, the GPS made it clear that it would never vote for any SVP candidate.

This opened the way to much speculation on who the SVP would propose. In the end some dozen candidates emerged but many of these were dismissed brusquely by the party leadership – a move which caused some internal muttering. They opted to propose three candidates from whom the Parliament could choose. And, in a gesture to the belief that the party should be present in all three language zones, it offered a triple ticket of a German speaker, a French Speaker and an Italian speaker. The latter opposed a problem as the party had to ’adopt’ Norman Gobbi, a leading albeit controversial, figure in the Lega as its Italian speaking candidate. For many observers this made it a ‘tricket’ because Gobbi was not a true SVP member and the French speaking candidate, Guy Parmelin from Vaud, lacked both executive experience and linguistic expertise. In any case there were already two French speakers which threatened to upset the regional and linguistic balance. This left Thomas Aeschi, a new but renowned free market hardliner MP from Zug, who was thought to be very close to Blocher as the speaking option. Many assumed that that the two Latins were just a smokescreen to ensure the election of Aeschi, thus allowing Blocher to reverse the humiliation of 2007.

The press talked much of finding another, more acceptable SVP Minister than the austere Aeschi. However, given the growth of social media, it was much less easy to organize a secret coup than it had been in 2007. In any case, following the Widmer-Schlumpf debacle, the party had rewritten its rules and given itself the power to exclude from the party any SVP member who accepted election to government without being on the official party ticket. For the other parties, backed by the opinion of a leading lawyer, this was unconstitutional because it infringed the rules that all citizens were eligible for election and that MPs could not accept outside direction.

When it came to the election the six existing Ministers were all easily elected on the first ballot. The Radical Didier Burckhardt topped the list with 217 out of 234 votes, followed by the Christian Democrat Doris Leuthard and the Social Democrat Alain Berset, both of who scored over 200 votes. The other Radical, Johan Schneider-Amman got 191 and the second Social Democrat, serving President Simonetta Sommaruga, attracted only 182. SVP criticism of her handling of asylum probably led many of its MPs to abstain. Conversely Ueli Maurer of the SVP came bottom with 173, though this too was far above the required majority. However, he failed to  obtain  the  support of many Greens, Social Democrats and centrists.

The first round of voting for the now empty desk of Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf put Parmelin into a clear lead with 90 votes, 32  ahead  of  Aeschi.  Gobbi  won  50  and an outsider SVP man from Schaffhausen attracted 22. He dropped out in the second round which saw Parmelin only 3 short of the required majority of 120. Come the final round he romped home with 138, 19 above the bar, followed by Aeschi on 88 and Gobbi on 11. So the Romande presence was raised to three. With two Bernese already in place, this over represents western Switzerland. Some might say it infringes Article 175/4 of the new Constitution which says that the various regions and linguistic communities must be equitably represented in government.

The reason that Parmelin was chosen seems to be that he represented one of the more traditional elements of the SVP, being a vigneron from Bursins in the far west of the canton. He had been in the Vaud Grand Council from 1994-2003 and had won a reputation as a pragmatist and centrist. He drifted somewhat to the right once in the National Council from 2003, serving on the committee that organized the 9 February referendum and toeing the party line on the bi-laterals. However, he remained clubbable and approachable. His website also shows that remained a practical politician, and was not another hard-line ideologue. Moreover, he spoke warmly of team playing in his interviews with the other parties. All this led Parliament to take a chance that, unlike Blocher, he could be domesticated. Ostensibly, for the SVP the election was likely to strengthen its position in the Suisse Romande, which remained weaker than that in the east of the country. More significantly, it meant that concordance (as the party understood it) was restored and that the party had regained its rightful place in government. This would allow it to push its preferred agenda. However, some observers said that it actually dismayed Blocher and the leadership who felt that Parmelin was too changeable to be relied on to push the party line in the way they would have wished.

This question also emerged of which department Parmeliin might be given. One has to say given because the system allows him no voice. Initially, the Radicals and the Christian Democrats had suggested he should take over the Justice and Police portfolio as this would show up the weaknesses of the party’s policies on asylum. Others feel that he would be under too much pressure from his party and try extremist measures which would cause clashes with Switzerland’s international obligations and might generally upset the apple cart. In any case the SVP seems to have shown no desire to take over the portfolio, perhaps because it preferred to be able to go on criticising. Parmelin’s own preference was for the Interior brief as this covers agriculture. However, the incumbent, like the other four Ministers, wanted to see through the policy reforms on which he was engaged and preferred not to move. However, Maurer wanted to take the now vacant Finance brief even though banking secrecy was no longer there to be defended. So Parmelin was left with Defence and Sport which has become something of a starter portfolio. What use the two SVP ministers will make of their new briefs, and their new role in the Federal Council, remains to be seen.

Onward to System Change

Nonetheless, much foreign comment seems to be convinced that the two elections will push the country very far to the right. Indeed some still see the SVP as threatening to change the regime, thereby putting Swiss liberal democracy at risk. This view derives largely from the party’s populist policy aims. Nominally it does not have any long term plans to reconstruct the Swiss political system. Its aims seem to be conservative. Hence it seeks to defending Swiss exceptionalism and tradition by reversing the key policy changes which have compromised Swiss identity and sovereignty.

Thus its contract with the Swiss people now commits itself, firstly, to preventing attachment to the EU and any expansion of the rule of ‘foreign’ judges. Secondly it commits to limiting the growth of migration so that Switzerland does not become a country of 10 million people. Thirdly it undertakes to ensure the expulsion of foreign criminals and the maintenance of societal security. And finally it guarantees to bring in lower taxes and a lessened burden of regulation. This is hardly an anti-system stance.

However, these  aims  have  two-fold institutional implications. On the one hand, they imply powers for the state. Expulsion of criminal foreigners would be impossible without it. This is despite its commitment to a smaller state and the rights of cantons. On the other, the party also needs to gain power in order to impose its ideological aims. In other words,  as  some  of  its  leaders  have said, unless it gets a majority in parliament and hence government, it cannot be sure that its policies can be fully implemented. Even direct democracy cannot yet guarantee this. In other words, it seeks to succeed in the system rather than overthrowing it. Moreover, both some of the party’s other targets and some of its behaviour suggest that it also has institutional changes in mind. To begin with it is very critical of existing institutions, notably the Federal Council and the Federal Tribunal. It would like to see the former directly elected but even its own supporters turned this down. Where the latter is concerned, while it dislikes international law, it also derides some of the decisions taken by judges in the national courts. At the same time, it has a strong belief in traditional institutions. Most importantly, it has a populist commitment to direct democracy, which it sees as the essence of the Swiss exception, and the supreme expression of sovereignty. It treats this as its secret weapon and pushes for it to be superior to all other institutions. Indeed, at present it is seeking to push through a new initiative which would force literal implementation of an initiative on the authorities depriving government and parliament of their traditional powers of interpretation.

At the same time, the SVP also places great stress on the rights of party. Because it has been reborn out of the old agrarian SVP it is very conscious of the need to impose its new hard-line. Hence, initially, Blocher’s unwillingness to bow to the collective will and cease being a party spearhead when in government, and then its argument in 2008 that, with the ejection of Blocher, its voters were not represented in government as they ought to be. As a result it rewrote its rules to insist that all its candidates for the Federal Council must formally and fully subscribe to its anti-European and migration principles. And, through its Exclusion clause which stipulated that any party member who was not on  the  official  list  and  who  accepted nomination would be automatically ejected from the party, it seemed to deny the right of MPs to make their own choice of its representatives. Secure in the support of a large minority of the electorate, not to mention in the correctness of its views, it sees its role as forcing its views on the system rather than either replacing it or compromising. For the moment the party seems willing to work wholly within the system, having learned from the failure of its attempt at opposition in 2008. But we do not know whether it will favour low key parliamentary negotiation over aggressive use of direct democracy. The normalization claimed by some observers has yet to be demonstrated in other words.

In any case, if thereafter its self- proclaimed ‘long march through the institutions’ continues, this could change. Some of its leaders still hope to get 50% of the vote. This would clearly change things. Thus, at present it can only rely on its two votes of the seven in government, because it cannot rely on the support of the other centre right parties, despite the rash talk of ‘a right wing majority. but were this to alter, the whole nature of government and politics would change. Structures would largely remain the same, but the old norms and customs would go, and the country would become much more majoritarian. And the spirit of balance, consensus and proportionality would probably disappear. In other words, despite the commitment to the ‘good old ways’ the logic of the SVP’s stance is pretty radical, if not revolutionary, in Swiss terms. Critics who see the SVP as a nationalist populist party and not a conservative one have a point. If it has its way it could well set Switzerland on the road to becoming a ‘partitocrazia’

Were this kind of implicit regime change to occur, Switzerland would become much more European in nature. This is partly because of what would be its greater majoritarianism and partly because of the fact that the rise of the SVP is part of a continent wide erosion of the post 1945 and its stable party systems. Its nationalist tones are being heard all the way from Barcelona to Warsaw and this at a time when cooperation is increasingly needed, having been undermined by national egoism. So there is a deep irony in the fact that the most Europeanized party in the country is leading the anti-EU drive.

For  the  moment  there  is  hope that the SVP will listen to the calls from German speaking Switzerland  for  it  to drop its oppositional role, to refrain from destabilizing initiatives and challenges and instead to play a properly responsible part in government. Many people have had enough of its persistent denunciation of others and its excessive lamentations about the state of the country. The selection of Guy Parmelin may point in this direction. However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The SVP will be tested and will have to choose between settling back into the old consensual ways or continuing with its un-house trained polecat style. Here, leading Green and Social Democrat parliamentarians assume that there will be no change and that political battles will continue to be fought out aggressively through direct democracy and not through concordance. If this is the case than the fears expressed by foreign commentators may prove justified somewhere down the line. Conversely, things may be turn out to be much less clear cut than many assume. In fact, it is probable that the present uneasily balanced situation will continue and the party’s potentially revolutionary  push  for a regime dominated by the divine right of party will be held up. Hence, the reality is that Switzerland faces four more years of difficult negotiations and confrontations. Watch this space in other words.