This is how Switzerland elects a new federal councillor

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This is how Switzerland elects a new federal councillor
The Swiss parliament building. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

This Wednesday, the Swiss parliament will vote in two new members of the federal government. Here are ten things you need to know.


1. The Swiss government executive (the Federal Council) is the body that implements the laws decided by parliament. Its seven members are elected by parliament for a term of four years (the last election was in 2017 when current Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis was voted in) and each heads up a government department.

With current Environment Minister Doris Leuthard (Christian/Democrats/CVP) and Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann (Liberals/FDP) both announcing back in September they would step down at the end of this year, the December 5th election will see two seats filled.

READ ALSO: Swiss federal council - a who's who of the candidates

2. According to the Swiss constitution, any Swiss citizen who is eligible to be an MP in the National Council (the lower house of the Swiss parliament) can in theory stand for election to the Federal Council. They don’t have to be a parliamentarian already.

As a result, there are usually a number of wildcard candidates. However, in practice, the only candidates with any realistic chance of winning a seat on the government are those who have been nominated by the various political parties. They are also usually already serving in the federal or cantonal parliaments.

The Federal Council chamber is in the west wing of the Swiss Federal Palace in Bern. Photo: Rolf Weiss.

3. This time around, there are four official candidates. The CVP has nominated both MP Viola Amherd and Heidi Z'graggen, who has been a member of the cantonal government in Uri for the last 14 years, as possible replacements for Leuthard. Meanwhile, the FDP has nominated two members of the senate, Karin Keller-Sutter and Hans Wicki, to replace Schneider-Ammann.

No other parties in the parliament have put forward candidates as they would have very little chance at all. This is because the Swiss government is a 'concordance system' with all four major parties (the CVP, the FDP, the left-wing Socialists and the right-wing Swiss People’s Party) holding a set number of seats in the Federal Council depending on their parliamentary strength. This dividing up of seats is carried out using unwritten rules referred to as the ‘magic formula’.

Read also: Here's what's at stake in the Swiss federal council elections

4. Though it’s highly likely two of the four nominated candidates will be elected to the two available posts, that doesn’t always happen. In 2007 Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf was elected to the Federal Council even though she wasn’t an official candidate. 

5. Parliament isn’t completely free to choose whoever it wants, however. According to Swiss law, the Federal Council must respect the regional and linguistic diversity of Switzerland, although there are no specific rules about how that's done.

Currently, there are three federal councillors from the non-Swiss German speaking part of the country (Alain Berset, Guy Parmelin and Ignazio Cassis). This means that regional background is more important than language in this election (all four candidates are Swiss-German speakers).

All four candidates can claim a ‘regional bonus’. Keller-Sutter is from St Gallen in eastern Switzerland, a region not currently represented in the Federal Council. Z’graggen would be the first ever Swiss government minister from the canton of Uri and Wicki is also from central Switzerland, which hasn’t been represented in the government for 15 years. Meanwhile, Amherd comes from the minority German-speaking part of the predominately French-speaking Alpine canton of Valais.

Swiss federal councillors are sworn in after the December 2015 federal council elections. Photo: AFP

6. A key factor in the 2018 vote is gender. There is a growing unspoken agreement in Switzerland that there should be at least three women on the Federal Council. There are currently two in Doris Leuthard and Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga. When Leuthard announced her retirement, observers noted that Leuthard’s departure and the arrival of another man in the government would see the country with just one woman in its government – something seen as unacceptable by many.

However, the CVP has put two women on its ticket and among the two FDP candidates Keller-Sutter is the hot favourite. This is why it is highly likely that there will soon be three women in the Swiss government.

In terms of the CVP candidates, Viola Amherd is the favourite.

7. The election comprises three rounds of voting, with votes cast in a secret ballot. In the second round, any candidate who gets fewer than ten votes is knocked out. The winner is elected when he or she gets more than half the votes cast. The elected person can refuse to take up the post, in which case another election will be held.

8. Parliament doesn’t elect the new member to become head of a specific department. The Federal Council itself decides which member heads up which department, with longest-serving members having first pick. The new ministers’ roles will be decided in the weeks following their election.

The four candidates for the elections. Photo: Swiss Parliament/CVP

9. Federal councillors are not allowed to hold another job or political post but must focus solely on their government role, so the elected persons will resign from any professional positions before they take up the post.

10. The new federal councillors will earn a salary of 445,163 Swiss francs (€393,480) a year, plus a 30,000-franc expense account and the use of two cars – a company car and an official state car. They also get a first-class annual rail pass but have to pay for their own TV licence.


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