Switzerland votes on Sunday in its most bitter election for decades
UK update at end of article
Swiss politics has often been seen as boring (to put it unkindly), although “stable” might be a more diplomatic term. Like Cuba, there was no change in the party makeup of the government between 1959 and 2003 – and if a party’s vote share moved by 2% from one election to the next in the 1970s or 80s that was a lot.
As is well known, Switzerland isn’t likely to join the EU anytime soon, there are four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansch), and referendums are commonplace – it probably comes closer than anywhere else in the world to the ideal of “direct democracy”. Like the American states, the 26 cantons have a great deal of power within the federal system, with varying tax rates for example. However, it’s one of the few countries where turnout at national elections is lower than the UK, around 45% in 2003. The voting system is a mix of the simple and the complicated – in the single-member cantons, a UK-style â€œfirst-past-the-postâ€ system is used, and elsewhere there is a complex system of proportional representation.
Since 1959 the government has been a four-party grand coalition known as the â€œMagic Formulaâ€. There are seven seats in the Cabinet and the split of these between the big four parties didnâ€™t change between 1959-2003. The biggest four parties are the centre-left Social Democrats (SPS, also known as the Socialists or SP), the centre-right Christian Democrats (CVP), the Radicals (FDP, also known as the Free Democrats) also on the centre-right, and finally the rightwing Swiss Peopleâ€™s Party (SVP). The Greens are the fifth party of Swiss politics, and there is a host of smaller parties. At the 2003 election, the vote percentages were SVP 26.7, SPS 23.3, FDP 17.3, CVP 14.4 and Greens 7.4.
The big story in recent Swiss politics has been the rise of the SVP. In the 1991 elections they won 11.9% of the vote, on a par with the 1970s and 1980s. In 1995 this rose to 14.9%, although they remained in 4th place. In 1999 they jumped to 22.6%, narrowly winning the national popular vote. In 2003 they improved again, to 26.7% and a clear first place, and as a result of this, went from one to two seats in the Cabinet at the expense of the CVP, the first change in the Cabinet party makeup for 44 years. Not only that, but they have broken out of their German-speaking stronghold and are challenging in the Francophone cantons.
This Swiss campaign has been more controversial than usual, with the SVPâ€™s black sheep poster (their proposal to deport foreign families, should any family member be found guilty of violent crime, drugs offences or benefit fraud) and even a riot taking place in the capital Bern, again revolving around the SVP. Like Le Pen in France or Haider in Austria, the SVP have a charismatic leader in the shape of Christoph Blocher – but unlike either of them, he is a member of the government and has taken his party to first place in voter popularity.
The SVP have “broken the mould” of Swiss politics far more than the SDP ever managed in the UK, but at the price of being labelled racist from home and abroad (including the UN), although they claim they are simply raising issues that other parties refuse to, such as crimes committed by foreigners. A recent Independent article has described Switzerland as “Europe’s heart of darkness”, while there’s this from Sunday’s Observer and this from the Telegraph.
A recent poll shows the SVP improving its position compared with 2003, and it may even top the poll for the first time in a French-speaking canton, with Vaud the likeliest to fall. The Greens are aiming, perhaps ambitiously, to enter the Cabinet for the first time, and now that the Swiss consensual politics is being increasingly stretched by the SVP, how long will the “Magic Formula” with the big four parties in the Cabinet survive? The tectonic plates of Swiss politics, seemingly locked in place for decades, have shifted more in the last ten years or so than for generations, but it’s a moot point as to whether Switzerland is becoming a better place to live – and of course the answer may well depend on your status in society.
A very brief mention for Poland, which also holds parliamentary elections on 21st October – Law and Justice currently leads Civic Platform 38-33 in a recent poll, while the first round of the presidential election in Argentina is on 28th October, and First Lady Cristina Kirchner looks set for a very comfortable win.
I’ll be running a combined Election Game for Switzerland/Argentina, which includes a full form guide and opinion polls, so please click on the logo below to email me if you’re interested in entering.
Paul Maggs “Double Carpet”
Mike Smithson returns full time on 18th October
Paul Maggs runs The Election Game – click on the logo to email for more information.