Swiss to decide on direct democracy 'loophole'

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Morven McLean - [email protected]
Swiss to decide on direct democracy 'loophole'
Christoph Blocher, Swiss People's Party cabinet minister ousted in 2009. Would he still be in government if the people had voted? Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Swiss direct democracy means voters get to have their say on almost everything – except who represents them in the seven-person government cabinet. Citizens are being asked to change this in a national vote on June 9th.


Voters already elect their cantonal governments, decide on important federal government policies and cast ballots on initiatives backed by citizens. But the Federal Council has previously been off limits, with parliament picking the seven ministers. 

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), behind an initiative to allow voters to directly elect the federal government, says it will close a loophole in the country’s direct democracy system. The initiative committee says it is time to extend the people’s rights, allowing them to choose the cabinet. A vote by the people would also be more transparent and put an end to the political intrigues in parliament that surround the election of the government, it argues.

Candidates for the cabinet are nominated by the major parties and then selected through a voting process that may involve horse-trading to ensure the major political parties are adequately represented in the government, the so-called “magic formula”.

But the SVP, which currently only has one member in the federal government, despite having the most seats in parliament, is unhappy with the process. The party is still licking its wounds after its leading figure, Christoph Blocher, a billionaire industrialist with provocative views, failed to win re-election to the cabinet in 2009.

“Recent years – and especially the voting out of office of Christoph Blocher – have shown that the parliamentary election process is stretched to its limits: it has become unpredictable and non-transparent,” argues the pro-committee on its website.

The federal cabinet and parliament disagree. “The government is convinced that an election of the government by the people would not strengthen democracy, but rather do it a disservice,” said the justice ministry in a statement.

Jockeying for position

If the initiative were accepted, “from a democratic perspective it can be said that the legitimacy of the government would be strengthened”, says Dr. Marc Bühlmann, of the University of Bern political science institute.

But the strengthening of the government would entail a weakening of parliament. “Parliament would lose an important weapon for controlling the executive,” Bühlmann tells The Local.

“The political system would be turned upside down,” the political scientist says. “The idea of consensus politics would probably be lost. Government members would act as individuals and it would probably lead to a lot of logjams in the executive.”

Ministers would primarily be concerned with their own popularity and raising their own profiles, the government warns. “From the middle of the legislative term government ministers would have to try to win voters on Twitter and take part in their parties’ fundraisers,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the launch of the government campaign. Electioneering would take up ministers’ time and be costly, she warns.

“It could mean more people taking an interest in politics and participating in the elections, which would be good for the democratic system,” Bühlmann counters. “But it could have the opposite effect of putting people off the whole media frenzy and Americanization of politics.”

Third time lucky?

The SVP launched the initiative two years after Blocher was forced out of the cabinet. The right-wing party sees itself almost as a minority, with lots of members of parliament but few seats in government, where it wants to be better represented, according to Bühlmann.

It is the third time in the modern state’s history that the question of a popular election of the government has come to a vote. Twice in the first half of the last century voters considered the issue and rejected it by a large majority.

In the past it was the Social Democratic Party (SP) that championed the people’s right to elect their own government. Now, although the centre-left party is officially opposed to the initiative, some party members have come out in support – notably former foreign minister and past Swiss president Micheline Calmy-Rey. “This would be a good way of making the elections more transparent,” she told the Tribune de Genève newspaper.

Calmy-Rey, who comes from the canton of Geneva, also raises the issue of linguistic minorities, saying it is important to have a balance within the government. The initiative committee argues that its proposals guarantee representatives of French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland in the seven-member government. No such guarantees exist, however, for Romansh speakers.

This time round the initiative doesn’t look any more likely to succeed than in past attempts. A poll at the beginning of May showed around two-thirds of voters were unconvinced. Interestingly, it is the first time that women will have had a say on the issue, having only secured the right to vote on a federal level in the 1970s.

But political scientist Bühlmann says that while the issue has gone off the boil since 2009, the SVP could still manage to turn the public mood in its favour. “The SVP usually manages to mobilize people through its campaigns,” he tells The Local. 


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