Swiss elections Sunday promise low drama despite goats, growing right

Guide to Swiss 23 October parliamentary elections

Swiss parliament in session Photo ©Swiss parliament

BERN, SWITZERLAND – Swiss voters are voting Sunday 23 October to elect a new parliament. Headlines, especially outside Switzerland, have tried to build high drama into the voting session, where turnout is expected to be only around 40 to 45 percent, largely because the real drama comes in December, when the government is elected, say Swiss political specialists.

Last week goat mascots for the UDC (People’s Party) were stolen and found, covered in black paint, and much has been made of the colourful incident, abroad, of this plus the likelihood that the rightwing party is likely to gather the largest number of voters ever. The brouhaha over the rise of the right is the result of misperceptions about the UDC party’s true power and role in Swiss politics, says Ioannis Papadopoulos, professor of Swiss and public politics at the University of Lausanne’s Institut d’Etudes Politiques et Internationales.

The party is not more strongly against things such as immigration than it has been in the past, he argues, but it is more vocal and thus it appears to be moving further to the right. “What is happening now is that there is a tri-polar system” with homogeneity on the left and right but a very large and heterogeneous centre, he points out. The right will garner a few more votes in this election, he believes, but what really counts is the size and makeup of the complex, multi-party centre.

“This tripartate system makes it possible to rise above polarization and continues to make it governable,” he says.

GenevaLunch brings you this guide to the elections, which take place every four years, along with some cliché crunching about the often poorly understood political system of this nation famous for its direct democracy.

Who votes and on what

Voters are at the polls Sunday in Switzerland to select their members of parliament: they are voting representatives into the upper house, where each full canton has two representatives, and they are electing the 200 members of the lower house. Twenty cantons have proportional votes for the lower house, called the Conseil national in French, while six elect them by majority.

Jura and Solothurn have two representatives each and Zurich has the largest number for a single canton, 34, based on population.

The voting process, results

Switzerland has no voter registration because everyone who is eligible to vote is automatically mailed a ballot package by his or her commune.

Voters are given a booklet with ballots listing the candidates for each of several parties, with the number varying depending on the canton. Vaud has 12 parties this year and Zurich has one, the Freethinkers, that is not yet on other cantonal ballots, for example.

Voters are also given a blank slate that can be filled in by hand if they don’t want to vote for a party list.

Some 90 percent of voters mail in their ballots although this varies significantly from one canton to another, while scores of others deliver them to special boxes at each communal office before the day of the elections. Very few voters actually appear at the commune’s election centre on Sunday, although politicians tend to gather with their parties in their home communes, rather than in Bern.

What Swiss voters are not doing 23 October

The Swiss are not voting in a new government Sunday, nor are they voting on national popular initiatives, as they do three or four times in a normal year. There is no referendum.

The government is the seven-member ruling Federal Council, sometimes referred to as the cabinet, and it is elected by Parliament 14 December. The office of president is a one-year post that rotates among the councillors.

Why Swiss political passions will run higher in December than today

Micheline Calmy-Rey, 67, the current president, will be stepping down from the Federal Council and retiring as a member of parliament in December. Her departure leaves open one of the seven cabinet slots, and a complex series of negotiations will occupy parliament in the leadup to the vote for the new government in December.

The cabinet proposes legislation and it moves on legislation proposed by parliament, a process of continual negotiation among the 10 or so parties with representatives in parliament. Each federal councillor also serves as a minister for at least one department, so Calmy-Rey’s departure will also leave open the post of foreign minister, and the cabinet will negotiate to reassign that key post.

The significance of the parliamentary election

Parliamentary results give the first clues to the shadings of Switzerland’s government, which is not a typical coalition but rather a cabinet with members from several parties who agree to work “collegially”: debating behind closed doors in order to govern by consensus.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations by parties, based largely on their relative strength after the weekend’s elections, will hammer out deals to achieve a balance of power in the cabinet.

Theoretically, a party with a strong voter base, such as that promised by the UDC this weekend, could force its way into a larger role in the government, with an additional cabinet seat. But one of the least understood aspects of the system outside Switzerland, says Daniel Bochsler, assistant professor in comparative politics at the Centre for Democracy in Aargau, is that the goal of the parties is not to have a majority or a vastly larger number of votes than other parties because this would weaken their dealmaking ability.

Success in Swiss politics is measured by how well parties are able to drive their programmes, and managing referendums is a key aspect of this. The splintered nature of the political party system, with a large and continually shifting centre, means that success is closely linked to the ability to find compromises and partners with other parties.

The largest coalition, he points out, is the left, including the second-largest party, the Socialists, with the centre-right parties against the UDC, on many issues.

A rough idea of what Swiss political parties spent on the 2011 campaign, up to August

The parties and their money

Switzerland does not require its political parties to declare how much they are spending on political campaigns and the first efforts to track this, in 2011, are based only on publicly available data, such as how the standard price x frequency in media advertising. Even this, concedes public broadcasting company SSR’s political specialist Pierre Gobet, is an approximation, since Swiss media often offer special deals to clients.

What is clear is that the UDC, with its now internationally notorious poster campaigns that push a far-right social programme, spends far more than other parties. As a result, a still small campaign is underway to demand greater transparency on the part of parties, about their spending.

The Swiss respect for privacy that plays a role in maintaining bank secrecy laws, comes into play here, too, say political observers, and a change is not likely to occur quickly.

The muted campaign issues

Few voters are likely to be able to tell you what the campaign issues were, since issues are the stuff of popular initiatives, of which there are 28 currently on the books, scheduled for votes. The UDC”s posters have focused on the party’s calls for an end to what it sees as massive immigration, but other parties have taken the more traditional approach of trying to familiarize voters with key politicians, since the only thing voters are deciding Sunday is who should be an MP.

Energy is not a hot issue, since the government agreed earlier in 2011 to end Switzerland’s nuclear programme, says Gobet. The tax treaty with the US is not yet an issue, with negotiations slowed down until early 2012 when the new Swiss government is in place. The 28 popular initiatives in the wings will become issues, but only once the new government is in place, as well. Once the new government is in place hot issues such as alternative energy and too big to fail banks will resurface.

But today, it’s all about putting teams in place, before the big game of governing Switzerland begins in earnest.