Who should elect the Swiss government? The Swiss People’s Party’s strategy as a boomerang

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) wants Swiss voters to elect the Swiss government (Federal Council) in a direct vote. Today, they submitted a popular initiative, proposing an amendment to the constitution, to the authorities. They were required to collect the signatures of 100,000 citizens for this aim, and now, Swiss voters will be given the opportunity to decide on this proposal in a popular vote in the years to come – unless the party should withdraw its initiative in the meanwhile. As of now, it’s the legislative assembly that elects the government every four years, without any possibility of removing the government from office.

Usually, amendments to the electoral systems are proposed by political parties that expect to profit from such changes. It is not very surprising that the proposition to change the election modus for the Swiss government comes from the Swiss People’s Party. Although the Swiss government is usually composed of a large coalition, and mandates are almost proportionally allocated to the largest parties according to their share of parliamentary seats, in recent elections, the SVP has experienced difficulties to get represented in proportional terms, and/or the parliament refused to elect their official candidates (as they often did, in earlier periods, with Social Democratic candidates).

Surprisingly, however, our analysis shows that the SVP might be an important loser of the change in the electoral rules. In a newspaper article (available in German and in Italian), Karima Bousbah and myself discussed whether the SVP might profit from such a change in the election mode. Therefore, we have analysed the elections of the governments in 22 Swiss cantons, which are already elected directly, according to the same rules as they would apply at the national level. (While in the newspaper articles, we solely report correlation analyses, and some descriptive data, we also used panel data over the last 20 years, in order to understand why and when the SVP manages to win seats in governments, and when not.)

Similarly as at the national level, and despite the direct election by majority rules, cantonal governments are large coalitions, which roughly follow the rules of proportional seat allocation. Only the SVP is severely under-represented, holding 23% of the mandates in cantonal parliaments, but only 14% of the governmental seats. The SVP addresses right-wing, conservative voters, but the position of the party branches used to vary across cantons, especially before a party split in 2008. The most radical branches of the SVP often have difficulties in building alliances to other parties. In order to get their candidates elected under majority vote systems, the SVP relies on the support of the other right-wing parties, the Liberals (FDP) and the Christian Democrats (CVP). Where the SVP has a very pronounced right-wing position, it has difficulties to do so.

Also, young party branches fail to get their candidates into governments. Before the 1990s, the party only existed in a few cantons. Elsewhere, the party has difficulties in finding experienced and credible candidates for governmental positions.

Certainly, dynamics in national elections might be slightly different than in cantonal ones, where public attention is low, and candidates are often unknown to the voters. Nevertheless, we argue that the cantonal elections might be the best available indicator of possible governmental elections at the national level.

So why does the SVP start such an initiative? Most likely, because the other parties are afraid of a direct election of the government, and the initiative serves the SVP as an instrument to receive certain concessions from the other parties, for instance in December this year, when the Swiss Parliament will elect the Federal Council. Probably this won’t be the last indirect election, though.

This entry was posted in Direct democracy, Elections, Switzerland by daniel bochsler. Bookmark the permalink.

About daniel bochsler

Daniel Bochsler is Assistant Professor of Democratisation at NCCR Democracy at the University of Zurich. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Geneva. His main research interests include elections, political parties and ethnic politics, with a special focus on young democracies. He has been for research stays at the Universities of Tartu, Belgrade, at the University of California at Irvine and at the Central European University in Budapest. His monograph “Territory and Electoral Rules in Post-Communist Democracies” has been published by Palgrave. www.bochsler.eu

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