(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.
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.