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The militia system

Swiss politicians: just don’t call me a professional

By Jeannie Wurz in Bern

Almost all seats are filled for the election of the cabinet, when members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives come together (Keystone)

Almost all seats are filled for the election of the cabinet, when members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives come together


Many Swiss parliamentarians devote a significant part of their working week to politics but shun the label of professional politician. The reason: they want to keep one foot in the “real world”.

Karin Keller-Sutter is leaning against a wall in the Parliament building, talking to a reporter. No one could have a greater claim to the title “professional politician” than the 50-year-old from St Gallen.

Whether in her city council or cantonal parliament, as president of her local political party, as a candidate for one of the seven cabinet seats, or as a member of the Swiss Senate, Keller-Sutter has been practising politics for two decades. But she doesn’t consider herself a professional politician.

“I used to be a professional politician when I was in government, because this was a 100% job and I was responsible for a department,” she explains. Now she works 50-60% in the Senate and has time to serve on the boards of companies.

Thomas Minder was named Politician of the Year in 2013. He doesn’t consider himself a professional either. The owner of a beauty products company, he launched a people’s initiative to combat excessive manager salaries in 2006. Swiss voters’ passage of the “fat cat” initiative in 2013 made headlines worldwide, and the man who had “never done politics at all” found himself elected to the Senate.

In accepting last year’s public-nominated prize, he noted the irony of his winning an award “in the discipline of politics when I’m not even a professional politician. I’m first and foremost an entrepreneur and second a member of the Senate without a party”.


It’s perhaps not surprising that Keller-Sutter and Minder dispute their status as professionals. Switzerland has a long tradition of non-professional, “militia” politics at the local, cantonal and national levels. The 46 senators and 200 elected members of the House of Representatives converge on the capital four times a year for three weeks at a time to attend parliamentary sessions, as well as attending numerous committee meetings at other times of the year. Theoretically, most have other jobs outside of parliament.

Luzi Stamm, for example, is a lawyer. In 1991 he left a job in the courts for a seat in the House of Representatives, where he serves the rightwing Swiss People’s Party of his home canton of Aargau. “I think politics, the way it’s handled in Switzerland, gives you a lot of flexibility,” he says.

Stamm sees himself as “almost a professional politician”. But in the evenings, on the weekends, and when parliament is not in session, “I work 100% for my clients. I certainly work more than 40 hours, and certainly not 100% on politics.”

The militia system – a myth?

Whether it is feasible for a parliament to operate on a part-time basis has repeatedly been called into question as the workload and complexity of tasks handled by parliamentarians have increased over the years.

A 2014 survey of members of parliament by two journalists from the newspaper Schweiz am Sonntag found that the 99 politicians who responded devoted an average of 29 hours per week to their parliamentary duties – the equivalent of a 70% job. Around one-third of the parliamentarians stated that they had no other job outside of their political position.

In a comprehensive study four years earlier, University of Zurich researcher Sarah Bütikofer examined the professionalisation of the Swiss parliament. She also looked at the amount of time parliamentarians devote to being politicians. She characterised those who spent one-third or less of their time on politics as militia, those who spent two-thirds or more as professional, and those in between as “semi-professional”.

Bütikofer came to the conclusion that a militia parliament no longer exists, even though politicians themselves contribute to the “myth” that they belong to a non-professional parliament.

And today, there is “a continuing increase in the number of politicians who work full-time in politics in Switzerland”, she told swissinfo.ch.

Incentives and turnover

In many disciplines, the difference between amateurs and professionals is how much they are paid. In 2013, members of the House of Representatives averaged around CHF138,000 ($148,000) and senators around CHF156,000 for a year's work, according to the parliamentary database Curia Vista.

For some national parliamentarians, says Bütikofer, major increases in financial compensation over the last ten years made it more attractive to hold an office and possible to consider it as a full-time job.

In fact, turnover in the national parliament is relatively low, with 24 of 246 members (9.7%) leaving since elections were last held in 2011 and ten more planning to leave at the end of the four-year term in 2015.

Social Democratic parliamentarian Jacqueline Fehr believes it’s time for politicians’ job experience to be rewarded. She submitted a parliamentary initiative in December 2013 designed to give continuing education credit for work in politics.

Politicians learn skills such as negotiation, coalition building, communication, networking, and public relations, and gain in-depth knowledge of topics such as health policy or education policy, says Fehr. But they have little time for formal study.

“After our political career, we are on the labour market without enough continuing education certificates,” she says. “My idea is validation of the skills we get through our political work. There is not only a need to learn to do politics, but also to recognise the value of doing politics.”

Just one of the people

Not everyone acknowledges that value. The term “professional politician” has negative connotations worldwide. “If you want a slick professional politician I am not your man . . . . I am a straight-talking ordinary bloke,” proclaimed Bill Etheridge, a British Member of the European Parliament, in an article in an online British newspaper.

So, is it bad to be a professional?

“I wouldn’t call it bad,” says Bastien Girod, a member of the Green Party, “but I also see the advantage of not being a full-time professional politician.” Girod works as a postdoctoral researcher at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. “In my case I can really bridge politics and science. That allows me to build my own opinion independently, whereas politicians who work full-time often depend on the opinion of other experts.”

Karin Keller-Sutter agrees.

“I feel that it’s an advantage of the Swiss system that people still work,” she says. “This way you have the experience of practical work. You really have an insight into companies, into the actual problems. If you just are a member of parliament you don’t see the real world anymore. You just have a feeling of what could be the real world.”

Learning the ropes

Turnover is high in cantonal parliaments. A 2014 study by Antoinette Feh Widmer of the University of Bern’s Institute of Political Science found an average turnover of 50% in the period studied (1990 to 2012). Turnover was highest in canton Geneva (69%) and lowest in Appenzell Inner Rhoden (29%). One result of high turnover is the need to initiate new members into the political process. In September 2014, two members of the Bern city parliament submitted a motion that would require new parliamentarians to take a half-day course in parliamentary procedure. They also called on the city parliament to organise regular political continuing education courses for its members. According to Michael Daphinoff and Kurt Hirsbrunner, less time would be wasted in parliament if all parliamentarians knew what areas of competence fall under the city council and the correct procedures to follow in submitting initiatives.  




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