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Voters leave cabinet selection to parliament

Swiss parliamentary employees collect election ballots Keystone

While the Swiss had the chance to vote in October’s parliamentary elections, it is not voters but members of parliament who decide the composition of the government.

This content was published on December 3, 2003 - 16:08

They will vote in December on who joins, stays in, or leaves the seven-strong cabinet.

The Swiss may not directly elect their government but Clive Church, an expert on Swiss politics at the University of Kent in Britain, insists their voice can still be heard in the choices made.

“Opinion polls show that the electorate likes this form of government,” he said.

“That’s supported by the fact that over the years the Swiss have voted in a roughly similar fashion, so in a way they have repeatedly confirmed the [cabinet] choices made by parliament.”

Sharing power

Switzerland is a country with marked linguistic, religious and regional differences, and an important element in maintaining the balance within a government that has to represent those differences has been the “Magic Formula”.

It is an informal system of sharing power among the four major parties in a way that mirrors the linguistic and political landscape of the country when it was first introduced in 1959.

Since its gains in October’s elections, when it became the largest party in parliament, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party has launched a bid for a second cabinet seat – at the expense of the centre-right Christian Democrats.

A successful challenge would mean adapting the Magic Formula to reflect the relative strengths of the parties – a task best left to the parliamentarians, according to political analyst Jeremias Blaser.

He says the choice of cabinet ministers is not just about which party a candidate represents or a question of numbers.

“There are a lot of conditions the candidates for government must fulfil,” Blaser told swissinfo.

“Parliament also has to take into account the language they speak, the religion, which part of Switzerland they come from, their political leanings within their party, their sex and their commitment to consensus politics.

“Those are choices that simply could not be achieved in a popular vote.”

Loggerheads

There have been calls from the People’s Party for the government to be directly elected by the people.

Although the party has not yet put forward concrete proposals, Blaser believes any such moves would undermine Switzerland’s federal system, with a one or two-party government at loggerheads with parliament.

“If voters elected several members of the People’s Party and the
Radicals, we would have a government proposing policies unacceptable to a parliament still representing all the country’s federal tendencies,” he said.

“Parliament could not, and would not, accept policies put forward by two parties mainly representing German-speaking Switzerland for example – there would simply be a stalemate.”

Cabinet enlargement

If proposals to change the way in which government ministers are elected have not yet seen the light of day, those to increase the size of the government have not fared much better.

Parliament has been discussing the idea of cabinet enlargement for several years.

Those in favour of such a move argue that it would help share out the increased workload of government.

Switzerland’s cabinet members often head more than one ministry.

While political analyst, Hans Hirter, admits that a larger cabinet would help meet the pressures of modern day government, he also says it would make consensus more difficult.

“Getting seven people to work as a team and make collective decisions is much easier than it would be with nine or even 15 members,” he said.

“A larger government would also probably require some sort of leadership in the shape of a prime minister.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

Every four years, shortly after parliamentary elections, cabinet ministers wishing to remain in office need to have their mandate renewed by parliament.
When a cabinet minister retires his or her replacement is chosen by parliament.
An agreement known as the Magic Formula has shared out the seven cabinet seats among the four main parties in the same way since 1959.
The division of seats - four for German speakers, three for French and Italian speakers - still corresponds to the linguistic composition of the country.

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