Waiting for the right result

The political makeup of the Swiss parliament is anything but simple

Counting is underway in Switzerland’s parliamentary elections, with the rightwing Swiss People’s Party tipped to win the largest share of the vote nationwide.

This content was published on October 19, 2003 - 12:55

With the polls closed, results from the cantons are trickling in and will be closely watched for clues about the final outcome.

But political analyst, Hans Hirter, warns against trying to build up a picture of what will emerge at a national level from early returns.

“We’ll have to wait until the results from the larger cantons and the French-speaking part of Switzerland come in,” he told swissinfo.

“But these first results could be a confirmation of the wins the People’s Party made in eastern and central Switzerland four years ago.”

They will also be an early indication of how well the centre-right Christian Democrats have managed to defend their traditional strongholds in those parts of the country.

Hirter is expecting both the Christian Democrats and the other centre-right party in government, the Radical Party, to lose votes to the People’s Party.


“The last election was the first time the People’s Party made major inroads in cantons where the Christian Democrats were strong,” he said.

“In this election the People’s Party has also campaigned on the issue of tax and that could attract voters who in the past have supported the Radicals,” he added.

Whatever the outcome, Sunday’s vote is unlikely to have much influence in the short term over the composition of the government.

It is parliament, and not the people, that elects the government, and since 1959 cabinet seats have been shared out according to the so-called Magic Formula.

The centre-left Social Democrats, the Radicals and the Christian Democrats each have two seats, and the People’s Party has one.

If the People’s Party does well in the elections, as most political pundits are predicting, it is likely to make renewed calls for a second seat at the expense of the Christian Democrats.

Stalking horse

Hirter expects the People’s Party to put forward a stalking horse in December’s cabinet elections, when parliament approves the mandate of six ministers and elects a successor for the finance minister, Kaspar Villiger, who is retiring at the end of the year.

But he says that even if the party turns out to be the largest in the House of Representatives, it will probably still have to wait a while for the additional cabinet seat that it wants.

“I don’t think the outcome of this election will lead to a dramatic overhaul of the Magic Formula,” he said.

“But maybe in two or three years’ time, when one of the Christian Democrat ministers retires, we’ll see the true importance of the election for the People’s Party’s bid for a second government seat.”

Big winners

The Social Democrats are expected to be the other big winners in Sunday’s elections.

But Hirter says Switzerland’s electoral system does not necessarily mean that the party which wins the largest share of the vote will get the most seats in parliament.

After the 1999 elections, the Radical Party remained the largest in parliament with 60 seats across both houses even though it won just 19.9 per cent of the vote (compared with 22.5 per cent for the Social Democrats and the People’s Party).

Even if Sunday’s results lead to a change in the composition of parliament, Hirter says Switzerland’s tradition of direct democracy – where the people have the final say on policy issues at nationwide votes four times a year – will counterbalance any shift away from the Centre in Swiss politics.

“There will perhaps be more alliances made in parliament among the centre-right and rightwing parties,” he said.

Forcing votes

“But over the past four years it has been the People’s Party and the Social Democrats that have forced more nationwide votes.

“The Left-Right dynamic already exists within Swiss politics and as far as policy decisions go the people always have the last say anyway.”

Hirter also believes direct democracy is a major reason why most of the parties avoided addressing the issues of major concern to the electorate in the build-up to the vote.

He says issues such as increasing the retirement age, tougher asylum laws or closer ties with the European Union, are all ones that will be decided by nationwide votes.

The results of the elections, he insists, will have little impact on most of those issues.

“In Switzerland a political party has to take a position on an issue at a nationwide vote,” he said.

“At an election, their main concern is to get their own supporters to cast their votes.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

Pre-election opinion polls gave the People’s Party a 25.3 per cent share of the vote, the Social Democrats 23.1, Radicals, 19.5 and the Christian Democrats 14.5.
Around 4.7 million people are eligible to vote in Switzerland.
Turnout is expected to be between 40-45 per cent.
A majority of those who voted did so by post in the days running up to the election.

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In brief

Parliamentarians in the House of Representatives are elected by proportional representation.

The Senate is largely chosen by the first-past-the-post system.

The number of parliamentarians each canton sends to the 200-member House of Representatives depends on the size of the canton’s population.

This is not the case with Senate, where each canton sends two senators and each half canton sends one. There are 46 senators in total.

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