Major parties get a slap in the face

People's Party posters calling for an end to mass immigration did not gain the hoped-for support. AFP

Sunday’s parliamentary elections produced some surprises, in particular the rise of two new centre parties, and the drop in support for the rightwing People’s Party.

This content was published on October 24, 2011 - 15:13

Political scientist Georg Lutz tells that the major parties have been made to pay for pushing their own agendas in the voting campaign.

The People’s Party, for example, ran a huge poster campaign against the “mass immigration of foreigners”.

On the other hand, the Liberal Greens, a business-friendly green party increased its representation by nine seats, as did the Conservative Democrats, which did not even exist in 2007. It was established in 2008 by members of the People’s Party who disagreed with the hard line of the party leadership. The People’s Party, which is known abroad for its anti-minaret initiative and its hard line on foreigners, lost a few feathers. Were you surprised at that?

Georg Lutz: Yes, I was surprised. It was expected that the rise of the People’s Party would be slowed down. But that it lost so clearly and in fact slipped by the greatest number of percentage points did come as a surprise to me. Why did the strongest party suffer such a big loss?

G.L.: At a time when people were concerned about the economic crisis and the strong franc, not only the People’s Party, but all the major parties stuck rather obstinately to their particular election campaigns and pushed their pet issues.

So I can imagine that all the major parties – but above all the People’s Party, which only talked about one issue – were punished for that. So what does this mean, given that also four years ago [in the last elections] the left were unable to increase their share of the vote? Is this an end to polarisation [the fact that the two biggest parties are the People’s Party and the centre left Social Democrats]?

G.L.: Only to a certain extent. After all, the People’s Party, on the right wing, is still the strongest party. And it hasn’t become much quieter or more moderate in the past few years. I doubt that will change in the near future. And the left has remained strong. But the two poles have not grown any stronger. Just the opposite, in fact: they have both fallen back slightly.

What we really have now is a new fragmentation of the centre. The centre is more fragmented, but it has also grown more powerful. What does this fragmentation mean for the way parliament works?

G.L.: I expect things to become more difficult in general.

It’s true that we have moderate forces which have increased their vote, and who have always been the ones who assemble majorities. But these parties have to coordinate their approaches and reach agreements. And they don’t always have the same political goals.

Then over the next four years they must create an image for themselves, which they’ll have to do at the expense of other centre parties. They can’t all simply form a single bloc and say they’ll work together unconditionally. Each will also have to try to draw a distinction between itself and the others. That won’t make parliamentary work any easier. The centre often holds the balance when it comes to reaching political decisions. So it is regarded as the power that often moves things forward by way of compromise. Would you agree?

G.L.: Yes, that is what happened in the past, and will probably happen even more now. In the past eight to ten years the centre parties have felt insecure. They kept trimming their policies according to those of the parties at the two opposite ends of the spectrum which set the tone and which have continued to win.

The centre parties have now lost their fear of the People’s Party in particular. They have seen that in spite of a very expensive and elaborate campaign focussed on its core issue, the People’s Party didn’t manage to increase its vote. That means that the party has lost some of its potential to intimidate them in the daily business of politics. In the middle of December the cabinet members have to stand for election [by the members of parliament]. What do these shifts mean for this election?

G.L.: In my opinion it has made it all more open. After all, the [seven] cabinet members are not chosen collectively. In the Swiss system first one individual is elected and then the next. That  means you have to get together a majority of votes for every seat. And the People’s Party will have to get together a majority if it stands against Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf of the Conservative Democrats. And with the situation we now have, that will certainly be harder for the People’s Party. In that case it will have to get a majority against subsequent cabinet candidates. [See sidebar.]  

So it’s perfectly possible that the [cabinet] makeup will remain the same after the elections as before the elections.

House of Representatives

People's Party: 54 seats (-8)

Social Democrats: 46 (+3)Radical Party: 30 (-5)

Christian Democrats: 28 (-3)

Green Party: 15 (-5)

Liberal Greens: 12 (+9)

Conservative Democrats: 9 (+9)

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Swiss cabinet

Switzerland's government has seven members.

They are elected by the two houses of parliament sitting together.

Between 1959 and 2003 government seats were distributed between the four biggest political parties according to the "magic formula".

The Social Democrats, Radicals and Christian Democrats had two seats each and the People’s Party one.

But in 2003, the People’s Party became the biggest single group and took one seat from the Christian Democrats.

In principle any adult Swiss citizen can stand for the cabinet; in practice parties normally put up two candidates for the seat they expect to hold.

By unwritten agreement, and/or after horsetrading, members of all parties cast their votes in order to maintain the balance in the cabinet.

However, in 2007, the controversial strongman of the People’s Party, Christoph Blocher, despite being the official party candidate, failed to be re-elected.

Instead, a majority of members of parliament chose his party colleague, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf.

The party ordered her not to accept her election; rather than obey, she left the party and with like-minded colleagues went on to form the Conservative Democrats.

The People’s Party currently has only one minister, Ueli Maurer, in defence, and has set itself the task of gaining a second cabinet seat.

Voting takes place in order of seniority. Transport Minister Doris Leuthard of the Christian Democrats will be the most senior minister up for re-election in December; Widmer-Schlumpf’s election will be the second.

If it fails to get Widmer-Schlumpf voted out, experts predict that the seat of Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Amman of the Radical Party could be in danger.

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