Vote outcome hinges on order and whips

Politicking will largely decide how the cabinet vote falls Keystone

When parliament votes on the re-election of the government on December 10, party tactics will determine who remains in office.

This content was published on December 3, 2003 - 16:11

The order of voting will play a large part in the rightwing Swiss People’s Party’s bid to capture one of the centre-right Christian Democrat seats.

The result also depends on deals the four parties in government manage to strike in the run-up to the vote, and their ability to maintain party discipline.

The vote itself will be a war of nerves, according to Clive Church, an expert on Swiss politics at the University of Kent in Britain, especially for the two Christian Democrat ministers, Ruth Metzler and Joseph Deiss.

“The drama will start when Metzler stands for re-election,” he told swissinfo.

“If she gets in, the real crisis will be for Deiss and he may well decide to stand down at the last moment.”

Every four years, just after parliamentary elections, government ministers who wish to remain in office have to seek a renewed mandate from parliament.

They stand for re-election in order of seniority – the length of time they have served in government.

Although both Christian Democrats entered government at the same time, Metzler was chosen just ahead of Deiss, which means she will be the first of the two to put her job on the line.


After the dismal performance of their party in October’s parliamentary elections, the two Christian Democrat ministers have both been targeted by the People’s Party, which wants one of their seats for its controversial driving force - Christoph Blocher - in the seven-strong government.

As well as coming under pressure from the People’s Party, Metzler and Deiss have been called upon by some of their party’s own cantonal sections to resign.

But the final decision as to whether they stand lies with the two ministers themselves, no matter how much behind-the-scenes manoeuvring occurs.

A decision by either one of them to withdraw will depend on how much support they believe they can muster to beat off the People’s Party’s challenge, says political analyst, Hans Hirter.

“Metzler could be at risk if there is no pre-election agreement because she is the first of the two to stand,” he told swissinfo.

“It’s very difficult for the [Christian Democratic] party itself to tell either of them publicly to stand down,” he said, “so in the end it’ll probably leave it to the two ministers themselves to decide who gets scared first and chooses not to represent themselves at the elections.”

Party discipline

Another major factor influencing the outcome of the cabinet vote will be how successful the four main political parties are in ensuring their parliamentarians tow the party line.

With the People’s Party threatening to walk out of government unless Blocher is elected, there is extra pressure on the parties to ensure a pact is reached before the cabinet election.

Neither the Christian Democrats nor the centre-right Radicals – who also lost heavily in October’s elections –are willing to sacrifice one of their seats, and the left-of-centre Social Democrats are bitterly opposed to Blocher entering government.

But, says Hirter, a deal will need to be struck if chaos is to be averted, especially as each vote will be conducted by the time-honoured tradition of a secret ballot, making it impossible to enforce party discipline.

“It has worked quite well over the years,” he said, “and there could well be an agreement on the eve of the election to avoid a slaughterhouse on the day.”

“If there is no agreement, we could see any one of three different parties walking out of government.”


Only six of current cabinet are standing for re-election.

The seventh, one of the Radical party’s representatives, Kaspar Villiger, announced he would be retiring at the end of this year.

His successor will be the last be elected, and in the normal run of things, should be one of the official candidates chosen from among the party’s ranks.

The Radicals though have also come under pressure – mainly from the Christian Democrats - to forfeit their second seat.

But it is not a scenario Hirter believes will hold much sway on election day.

“The People’s Party has said all along it will not stand against the Radical party candidate,” he said.

“The Radicals are the closest – politically speaking – to the People’s Party, and Blocher certainly doesn’t want to be in a government in which his political views are in the minority.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

In brief

Every four years, shortly after parliamentary elections, cabinet ministers wishing to remain in office need to have their mandate renewed by parliament.

Six of the seven cabinet ministers will stand for re-election.

The election is by secret ballot and each minister will be voted on in order – according to time served in government.

Moritz Leuenberger (Social Democrat) and Pascal Couchepin (Radical) are the two longest serving ministers.

Ruth Metzler and Joseph Deiss are next in order of seniority.

Since 1959, seats have been shared out between the four main political parties in the same way, with two each for the Radicals, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, one for the People’s Party.

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