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

The metamorphosis of an old political institution

(with Karima Bousbah)
The Swiss political system provides a few institutional veto points, which were originally thought to protect the catholic minority, organised around the Christian Democratic Party (CVP). After a re-configuration of the political conflict lines, the ‘Ständemehr’ now seems to serve the interest of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), at the detriment of the CVP.  

Campaign against the new constitutional article on child care

In Switzerland, all constitutional amendments need to be approved in compulsory referendums by both the majority of people (Volksmehr) and the majority of cantons (Ständemehr). This “cantonal veto” was originally introduced in order to accommodate the catholic minority, and as a veto card of their political arm, the Christian Democratic Party (CVP). Historically, the Christian Democrats (CVP) could count on very large majorities among voters in the catholic cantons of Switzerland. On average, the catholic cantons are considerably smaller than the protestant cantons, and thus, they can use the Ständemehr to bloc constitutional amendments.

In the past 165 years, there have been only nine instances in which the Ständemehr had a direct effect. Meaning that, so far, in the history of Swiss direct democracy the majority of cantons has overruled the majority of the voters on nine different referendums on constitutional articles. However, it is possible that the Ständemehr had furthermore very strong anticipatory effects on parliamentary decision-making: in the last 100 years (this is the period for which voting recommendations by the political parties are available), there has been only one constitutional amendment opposed by the CVP, which was subject to a popular vote. It reached voters’ majority approval only in three (mainly protestant) cantons.

In a newspaper article, which appears on Tuesday, I am suggesting that the Ständemehr might, over time, have evolved into a veto card working in favour of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). Since the 1990s, the constitutional amendments on which small and rural cantons have differed most strongly from the will of the voting population, dealt with questions of a conservative-liberal nature, or were related to the issue of political opening (European Union, United Nations, etc). Nowadays, on all these issues, the CVP is usually (and increasingly) aligned with both the parliament’s and the government’s , whereas the SVP stands in clear opposition. The SVP, however, increasingly finds support in the small, rural cantons, and while the CVP still predominates in electoral terms, the SVP has increased its influence in referendum votes in these cantons. This implies that the Ständemehr could turn into a veto card in the hands of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP).

Among the nine constitutional referendum instances, in which there has indeed been a difference between the majority of the people and the majority of the cantons, two occurred in 1994, and one occurred this last Sunday (3rd of March 2013). In 1994, the constitutional referendum addressed the promotion of arts; it was opposed only by the SVP and the small Liberal Party (representing 3% of the electorate). The constitutional amendment was blocked by the majority of the cantons.

This Sunday, the Ständemehr struck back again. The referendum was on the issue of a constitutional article on families (the controversy was mainly about child care). Also in this case it was the SVP (supported by parts of the Free Democratic Party), which politicised the issue along a conservative-liberal dimension. In the end, the SVP managed to defeat the article with the help of the Ständemehr. Given that the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is nowadays quite strong, especially in the small cantons, and is often in opposition with parliament on conservative-liberal issues, we could actually expect an increase of referendums, where the Ständemehr is decisive, i.e. overruling the population’s majority. One thing, however, is particularly ironic about the failed referendum of Sunday: the veto card – originally thought to function as a the veto of the catholic minority (i.e. CVP) – was now used by the SVP to defeat a bill initiated by the CVP.

Are Albanians smarter than Germans?

Campaign for vote-splitting in GermanyIf there was a catwalk for political institutions, mixed electoral systems would be the newest fashion trend. They are incredibly popular among politicians, pressure groups, and academics all around the world. Mixed electoral systems combine proportional representation with local representation in single-seat districts. Now, just a few weeks before the Constitutional Court of Germany is debating (again) about loopholes in mixed electoral systems, my article about strategic manipulation under these systems has been published online in the International Political Science Review.

In fact, the German electoral system is the best-known example of mixed electoral system, with voters voting simultaneously for a local candidate and for a national party list. Overall (surplus mandates apart), the allocated seats are exactly proportional to the parties’ vote share.

Almost the same electoral system has ended up in chaos in Albania, Italy, Lesotho and Venezuela. As my article shows, political parties can easily organise in a special pattern of strategic voting, which puts the electoral system completely out of order. More precisely, large parties can achieve over-representation by encouraging their voters to split their votes. They vote with the candidate vote (Germany: “Erststimme”) for their favourite party, but cast their list vote (“Zweitstimme”) for a different party, which is allied to their favourite party. If many voters follow this recommendation, then they outsmart the electoral system mechanism which is designed to lead to proportional results. Instead, the parties applying such a strategy will be massively over-represented.

I have simulated the consequences of such electoral strategies, and showed that there is no solution that would prevent them. Interesting enough, however, in 60 years of application of this electoral system in Germany, there is no known instance where such a strategy would have been used at large-scale. My tests (not published) for several recent elections show no sign that vote-splitting between CDU and FDP or between SPD and Greens has anything to do with such a strategy. In contrast, in young democracies, voters and parties have quickly learned how to abuse the electoral system.

De Borda: a wise manThis opens the question whether German-style mixed electoral systems with a compensatory mechanism are of any use at all. Note that there are many seemingly genius electoral systems discussed in the theoretical literature, which nobody would ever use in a real-world democracy, because they have very nice outcomes if everybody votes sincerely, but have devastating results, once actors start playing them strategically. This is why, for instance, the father of the Borda Count, Jean-Charles de Borda, told that his system was “intended only for honest men”.

I do not think that politicians and voters will ever be honest (except for Germans). Therefore, I am wondering whether German-style mixed electoral systems should be on the catwalk, or rather in the trash bin.

PS: At the NCCR Democracy, we have just started a new research project on mixed electoral systems, jointly with Christian Rubba who has joined us this month. New results coming soon.

Swiss national elections: strategic alliances more important than campaigning?

By Claudia Alpiger* and Daniel Bochsler

List apparentments have heavily affected the distribution of seats in the national assembly, also in the recent national elections of Switzerland. Our analysis, published today in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, shows that the Green Liberal Party has doubled its mandates only due to its strategy of engaging in electoral alliances with different parties in different cantons.
Apparentments are a very rarely seen solution in proportional electoral systems. They are used in 20 out of 26 Swiss cantons, where elections to the national assembly are held by a proportional electoral system, relying on the D’Hondt formula. Under this formula (division allocation rule with rounding down), large parties are strongly favoured over small parties. However, political parties are allowed to link several electoral lists, and the initial seat allocation treats such alliances – called apparentments – jointly as a single unit, even if each party runs with its own list. Thereafter, mandates won by such an alliance are allocated to each of the electoral lists. Such apparentments especially help coalitions of small parties not to loose seats towards large parties (see Bochsler, 2010, Electoral Studies).

For the most recent Swiss parliamentary elections of 23 October, we have simulated the party benefits and losses from apparentment strategies. There are three main winners.
As in previous years, the Social Democratic Party (SPS) and the Green Party (GPS) had a consequential apparentment strategy in almost each canton (except for two cantons, Aargau and Ticino). This helped the SPS – the biggest party in this apparentment – to gain six seats, and the Green Party won four seats. The Green Liberals joined the left-wing-green alliance only in one canton, Graubünden, but won a seat there, only thanks to this apparentment.
Equally, the Christian Democratic Party (CVP) benefitted with six seats from apparentments. The party was lucky to find several new small centre-right parties, being very compatible with the CVP for joining apparentments.
The third party which equally benefitted from apparentments were the new Green Liberals (6 seats won). They engaged in flexible alliances, in many cantons with the CVP and the BDP, but in others also with various small parties, spanning the whole political spectrum from the left (GPS) to the far right (with the Christian-conservative EDU), and in one canton (Graubünden) allied to the SPS. The benefit of six gains due to list apparentments is quite remarkable, given the total of only 12 mandates that the party won in the national elections. Given these numbers, the right alliance strategy probably paid out much more than the electoral campaign.
The loser of the apparentments is the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). Due to their increasing political isolation in the Swiss party landscape, they engaged in apparentments almost only with the small Christian-conservative EDU in several cantons, the anti-immigration party Lega dei Ticinesi in the canton of Ticino, and in one case (Vaud) with the Liberals (FDP). These apparentments did not help them to win any seat. Instead, in most cases where other parties won mandates through apparentments, this was paid by the SVP. No wonder a MP of the SVP has now started a proposal to abolish the apparentment system in Swiss national elections.

* Claudia Alpiger works in the Democracy Barometer group at the Zentrum für Demokratie Aarau

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.