Facebook Blogging

Edward Hugh has a lively and enjoyable Facebook community where he publishes frequent breaking news economics links and short updates. If you would like to receive these updates on a regular basis and join the debate please invite Edward as a friend by clicking the Facebook link at the top of the right sidebar.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Of white and black sheep: Switzerland holds a federal parliamentary election

By Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

The Swiss Confederation holds a federal parliamentary election on Sunday, October 21, 2007. Voters will choose 199 members of the 200-seat Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of the Swiss Parliament; in the small canton of Nidwalden, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) candidate had no opponent and was declared elected last September 25.

In addition, elections will take place for 41 of 46 seats in the Council of States, the upper house of Parliament; the cantons of Zug and Appenzell Innerrhoden elected their Council of States members in October 2006 and April 2007, respectively, while FDP and Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP) candidates were elected unopposed last month in the single-seat cantons of Obwalden and Nidwalden. Federal Elections in Switzerland - Elections to the Nationalrat (National Council) has further information on the country's electoral system, with parliamentary election results from 1971 to 2003.

By Western European standards, voter turnout in Swiss parliamentary elections has been decidedly low for many years: since 1979, fewer than fifty percent of the electorate has taken part in successive National Council elections. In fact, among Western democracies only the United States has lower election turnout rates.

Switzerland's low voter turnout in federal elections may be attributed to a variety of factors. First, the country has been ruled for nearly a half-century by a grand coalition of the four major parties - the conservative Swiss People's Party/Democratic Center Union (SVP/UDC), the left-of-center Social Democrats/Socialists (SPS/PSS), the centrist Free Democrats/Radical Democrats (FDP/PRD) and the center-right Christian Democrats (CVP/PDC); despite growing acrimony between them, it is very likely the same four parties will remain in power after the election. In other words, it is not anticipated the upcoming vote will bring about a change of government.

Second, in Switzerland a popular referendum may be held over any bill voted by Parliament; only 50,000 signatures (just over one percent of the electorate) are required to call a referendum: the measure must then be passed by a double majority: a majority of voters in the entire country, and a majority of cantons (the federal states of Switzerland, which are endowed with considerable powers). Constitutional amendments must also be approved by voters. In fact, as little as 100,000 of these (around two percent of the electorate) can propose a constitutional amendment, which must be decided as well by popular referendum, after being debated in Parliament. As such, the electorate can veto any bill passed by Parliament, effectively diluting the power of the legislature.

And third, in Switzerland nationwide referenda are usually held several times a year, resulting in electoral exhaustion; in fact, most referenda are characterized by low turnout rates as well. Nonetheless, it should be noted there were slight voter turnout increases in the 1999 and 2003 federal elections, after having hit an all-time low of 42.2% in 1995.

For most of the 20th century, SPS/PSS, FDP/PRD and CVP/PDC had been Switzerland's three largest parties. However, in the 1999 and 2003 general elections SVP/UDC, until then country's perennial fourth party, made substantial gains at the expense of other right-wing and centrist parties, while the Free Democrats/Radical Democrats and the Christian Democrats declined noticeably. Opinion polls suggest SVP/UDC will remain the largest party, ahead of SPS/PSS, with FDP/PRD and CVP/PDC vying for third place. Meanwhile, the Green Party of Switzerland (GPS/PES) - the largest non-government party - stands to make substantial gains.

As in the 2003 general election, SVP/UDC is running on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform, illustrated by a controversial campaign poster that shows three white sheep, one of which is kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag; the poster's caption translates as "For Greater Security." In addition, the party is collecting signatures for an initiative to expel foreign criminals from the country. However, one event that could upset all predictions was the riot that took place in Bern last October 6, in which far-left groups disrupted a SVP rally. Although the United Nations' xenophobia watchdog has denounced the SVP/UDC campaign poster as openly racist, the violent incident in the Swiss capital could play to the rightist party's advantage.


Complete election results published by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office's Elections 2007 website show both the right-wing Swiss People's Party/Democratic Center Union (SVP/UDC) and the environmentalist Green Party of Switzerland (GPS) made significant seat gains, mainly at the expense of the centrist Free Democratic Party/Radical Democratic Party (FDP/PRD) and the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland/Swiss Socialist Party, which lost considerable ground. Meanwhile, the Christian Democratic People's Party/Christian Democratic Party (CVP/PDC) picked up additional seats.

With all twenty-six cantons reporting, the distribution of National Council seats in the 2007 federal election is as follows (figures in parentheses show gains or losses with respect to the 2003 federal election): SVP/UDC, 62 (+7); SPS/PSS, 43 (-9); FDP/PRD, 31 (-5); CVP/PDC, 31 (+3); GPS/PES, 20 (+7); Others, 13 (-3). Voter turnout increased to 48.3% - the highest in twenty years.

While it's expected the four major parties will remain in grand coalition, the growth of the Green Party raises the possibility the party may seek representation in the Federal Council, Switzerland's seven-member collegiate presidency. That said, the Greens would need majority support in Parliament in order to secure a seat in the nation's governing body, and that seat would inevitably come at the expense of the other parties.

However, the Greens have called for SVP/UDC to be thrown out of government for failing to follow the highly valued principle of consensus politics. That's rather unlikely to happen, precisely because Swiss politics are based on a broad political consensus, and on that account it would be nearly inconceivable to exclude the largest party from power, particularly in light of its recent election success. Nonetheless, relations between the Swiss People's Party and the other three major parties have been less than cordial as of late, and a Social Democratic-Radical Democratic-Christian Democratic-Green coalition would still command a comfortable fifty-seat majority in the National Council...