Swiss elections - a battle for the centre

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Meritxell Mir - [email protected]
Swiss elections - a battle for the centre
Simon Aughton

Ahead of the Swiss federal election on Sunday October 23rd, The Local's Meritxell Mir speaks to political expert Marc Bühlmann about the rise of the SVP, the battle for the centre ground, and the challenges facing the left. 


Switzerland goes to the polls on October 23rd for federal elections which might bring some surprises to the parliament in Bern.

According to recent polls, the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) could get a historic record of 30 percent of the vote share, and two new centre parties could enter Swiss politics.

Marc Bühlmann, director of the Swiss Political Yearbook, talks to The Local about the likely outcomes and gives an insight into the Swiss political battlefield.

TL: What do you think will be the biggest surprise in the elections?

I do not think that there will be a big surprise in terms of the vote shares.

Of course, the new parties -- the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP) and the Green Liberal Party (GLP) - will win some percentage, mostly to the detriment of Christian Democratic Party (CVP) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

But in general, the overall distribution will stay very similar between the left made of the Green Party and the Socialist Party (SP);  the right, made up of the SVP, and the centre with the FDP, the CVP, the GLP and the BDP.

TL: According to the most recent survey, the SVP will get 29.3 percent of the votes. If these results get confirmed on Sunday, the party would set a record vote share in the history of Switzerland. What are they doing better than other parties?

First, the party uses quite consistently the features of a so to speak ‘americanised’ campaign. For the SVP, every day is a voting day. The party is very apt in reminding the voters about immigration, which is its key issue.

Second, it offers quite very simply black and white solutions and proclaims the ‘old Swiss values’.

This way the SVP responds to a demand of a specific clientele, mainly citizens in bad paid jobs that do not benefit from the process of opening Switzerland to the world. These people were potential voters for the Socialist Party, but now they have found a new ‘homeland’ within the SVP, and they are quite well mobilized by the SVP.

Finally, the Swiss political system with its direct democracy allows parties to be in the government and in the opposition at the same time, and the SVP uses this opportunity quite elaborately.  This is one of the most important reasons why, unlike other European right wing parties, the SVP has been very successful and quite stable over time.

Additionally, the SVP has more funds than the other parties.

TL: It seems the fragmented centre will become the biggest political battleground on Sunday with two new parties, the Green Liberal Party (GLP) and the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP). What are the reasons behind the birth of these new political groups?

The Green Liberal Party is, in a way, a sign of the success of the Green party to make the topic of environment protection acceptable also for parties in the centre. However, the GLP connects environment protection with less leftist policies.

On the other hand, the Conservative Democrats are the moderate wing of the SVP. One of the reasons of the radicalization of the SVP is the Zurich wing that more and more became decisive within the SVP. The BDP separated from the SVP in the aftermath of the non re-election of Christoph Blocher and the exclusion of the SVP form the canton of Grison in 2007.

TL: So who is behind the vote of the BDP? Less radical people?

Yes. An analysis of the SVP voters in 2007, when the Conservative Democratic Party did not exist yet, shows indeed that voters in the cantons of Graubünden, Glaris and partially also Bern had somehow less radical opinions than the average SVP voter.

TL: But according to polls, it does not look like it will hurt the SVP vote share, on the contrary…

In the cantonal elections in 2010 in Bern, Glaris and Graubünden, the Conservative Democratic Party votes did not harm the SVP but the Free Democratic Party, at least in canton Bern. It will be interesting to see whether this will also be the case in the national elections.

TL: The left seems to have lost part of its political appeal. Why is that?

The left became to some degree the bloc that must defend the status quo because financial and demographic problems challenge the achievements of the social welfare state.

Furthermore, the clientele of the left is not the working class anymore but the middle class, who want a forward strategy. That’s why they abandon the Socialists and look for other party programs, like the ones from the Green Party or the Green Liberal Party.

TL: If recent polls get confirmed on Sunday, what will presumably be the political scenario for the next four years in Switzerland? How will the Federal Council be divided?

The question on the new composition of the government makes the elections pulsating, but it’s difficult to predict. The most plausible scenario is that the SVP gets a second seat in the Federal Council.

The question remains whether this seat will come from the Conservative Democratic Party or from the Free Democratic Party, and that will depend on the vote share they get.

The Federal Councillors are elected for the length of their mandate, so the Socialist seat that belongs to Michele Calmy-Rey will be elected at the very end.

Due to this vote order, the SP cannot drive an offensive strategy and, therefore, the Greens will not get a seat. But, of course, I am just speculating.

TL: What will be the political climate in Bern for the next four years? Will there be the kind of tension we saw in 2007 with SVP's alma mater Christoph Blocher, taking into account the increasing power of the SVP?

The parliament will not vote any more for candidates that are not apt to govern more or less in a consensual manner. The SVP knows this and will not present extreme candidates. I think the “Blocher-experiment”, when he was ousted from office by the Parliament, was quite helpful in this respect.




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