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Consensus politics seen as election loser

It was a bad day for the Swiss People's Party Keystone

Switzerland’s newspapers agree that the country’s largest party - the rightwing Swiss People’s Party – was not the only loser in Wednesday’s cabinet elections.

Swiss-style consensus politics which sees government posts shared among the largest parties also took a beating, the commentators said.

Despite the People’s Party’s legitimate claim to a second seat in the seven-member cabinet, parliament chose to re-elect the six incumbents, including Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf of the Conservative Democrats, which won only five per cent of the popular vote in October’s parliamentary elections.

And the Social Democrat candidate, Alain Berset, was picked to succeed his party colleague, Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who is stepping down at the end of the year.

“The fact that a representative of a party that only won five per cent of the vote will be Switzerland’s president next year shows how odd the political situation has become following the cabinet elections. Nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of the modern Swiss state,” wrote Der Bund’s political commentator.

“But Switzerland’s fortunes fortunately don’t depend on whether one party is over- and another under-represented,” the Bern newspaper added, referring to the fact that the People’s Party – the largest in parliament with 26.6 of the popular vote – failed to win a second seat in the seven-member cabinet.

However, Der Bund said Switzerland’s system of consensus politics cannot – in the long term – afford to deny the strongest party more government representation.

“Fraught with risk“

Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) agreed. “The unwritten rule whereby the four strongest parties share power has stood since 1959. The ‘magic formula’ is based on this which has bestowed Switzerland with prosperity and stability.”

The NZZ said the new constellation since 2007 that grants a seat to the small Conservative Democrats at the expense of the People’s Party is “fraught with risk”.

“The party has been taught a lesson and consensus politics is battered. But that doesn’t mean that the Swiss style of government has become unhinged. It has survived other storms.”

The Tages-Anzeiger agreed that to a large extent, the People’s Party only has itself to blame. It argued in its commentary that the rightwing group made three errors: the first was throwing Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf out of the party when she accepted election to the cabinet in 2007 against the wishes of the party leadership. The second and third were its failure to groom a strong, acceptable candidate in the run-up to the election, and the last minute about-face to attack one of the two seats belonging to the centre-right Radical Party.


Despite the argument that the People’s Party only has itself to blame, the Tages-Anzeiger warns the other political groups not to alienate it further.

“The time has come for renewal of its leadership. The party should use the next four years to establish astute candidates acceptable to a majority of parliamentarians, which the centre-left Social Democrats have succeeded in doing.”

The defeat of the People’s Party was also the focus of the commentaries in the French-language press. They said the party had paid the price for its arrogance and errors.

Geneva’s Le Temps wrote: “It’s the paradox of Swiss politics: the status quo is a change. Certainly, the distribution of seats hasn’t altered with the re-election of Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and the arrival of newcomer Alain Berset. But from a political point of view, Switzerland’s consensus form of government has one victim: the People’s Party.

Death of consensus

La Tribune de Genève described Wednesday’s outcome as a spectacular change. “By  allowing this bizarre configuration where the biggest party and the tiny Conservative Democratic Party have the same weight within the government, parliamentarians have broken the rule that seats are handed out based on simple arithmetic.”

It declared the death of consensus politics, saying it cannot be resurrected before the next elections in four years’ time.

Ticino’s Corriere del Ticino also said it was wrong for parliament not to have given the People’s Party two seats. “The consensus style of government is not a mere formula to allocate seats to different parties but also has the capacity for practical solutions and constructive compromises.”

Another Italian-language paper, La Regione, highlighted the fact that once again, there will be no representatives in cabinet from Italian-speaking Switzerland: “The issue was lost in the melee between the People’s Party and the rest of parliament… the road to the cabinet for a representative of Italian-speaking Switzerland is a rocky one. The chance of success is about as good as winning the EuroMillions lottery.”

Rise of Berset

Not surprisingly, Fribourg newspaper La Liberté focuses on the election of Berset – a 39-year-old senator from Fribourg, and his rapid rise through the political ranks.

In an editorial entitled “The Berset rocket and missiles” Louis Ruffieux says the Social Democrat embodies Fribourg’s rediscovered sense of pride.

“The fourth Fribourg cabinet minister, the 11th youngest in the history of the federation, displayed… at the moment of his election a serenity and impressive maturity… With his history, his solidity and his political sense he is well armed to take on the highest responsibilities, whatever these may be.”

The term “consensus politics” describes the ongoing effort to achieve a balanced compromise among political parties and among the different cultural, linguistic and social communities that make up Switzerland.

The practice of distributing cabinet seats according to the relative strength of the parties in parliament was first adopted in 1959. Dubbed the “magic formula”, the unofficial power-sharing pact was undermined in 2007 when parliament elected Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf instead of her then People’s Party colleague Christoph Blocher. Widmer-Schlumpf and People’s Party cabinet member Samuel Schmid were subsequently expelled from the party, which went into opposition. The People’s Party’s Ueli Maurer was elected to the cabinet the following year when Schmid retired, and since then the party has been unable to regain the second seat.

Alain Berset, Social Democrat


Born in 1972 in Fribourg, Berset is married with three children. He studied political science and economics at Neuchâtel University from where he received a PhD in economics in 2005.

After working as a research scientist and political advisor, he was elected to the Senate in 2003 and was Senate president in 2009.

Since 2008 the seven cabinet posts have been divided between the parties as follows:

Social Democratic Party: 2

Radical Party: 2

Swiss People’s Party: 1

Christian Democratic Party: 1

Conservative Democratic Party:1

Re-elected to cabinet December 14:

Doris Leuthard, Christian Democratic Party, 216 votes

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Conservative Democratic Party, 131 votes

Ueli Maurer, Swiss People’s Party, 159 votes

Didier Burkhalter, Radical Party, 194 votes

Simonetta Sommaruga, Social Democratic Party, 179 votes

Johann Schneider-Ammann, Radical Party, 159 votes

Newly elected:

Alain Berset, Social Democratic Party, 126 votes

(With input from Federico Bragagnini)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR