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Why the resignation of the Swiss economy minister is big news for women

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Why the resignation of the Swiss economy minister is big news for women
Swiss Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis is sworn in in 2017. Photo: AFP
10:58 CEST+02:00
Switzerland’s economy minister, Johann Schneider-Amman, announced his resignation from the Federal Council on Tuesday, sparking a wave of calls for a woman to replace him in the government. Here we explain what is at stake.

On Tuesday, Swiss Economy Minister and federal councillor Johann Schneider-Amman said he would hang up his gloves on December 21st after eight years as a member of Switzerland's seven-member government. 

The news was immediately met with calls for a woman to replace him. Here we explain what is going on in the Swiss capital Bern, and how the Federal Council operates.

So what exactly is the Federal Council?

The Federal Council is the Swiss government. It is comprised of seven federal councillors chosen from the country’s major political parties. Decisions are made collectively: a keystone of Switzerland’s system of consensus politics.

Swiss transport minister Doris Leuthard with French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017.

Each of the seven councillors heads up one of the government's departments or ministries. Federal councillors are elected for a four-year term.

Seven heads of state

There is also a rotating 12-month presidency with one of the federal councillors chosen as president every year. This person chairs meetings of the council and performs key diplomatic duties. But it is important to note this president – currently Home Affairs Minister Alain Berset – is not the head of state. Rather, Switzerland has seven heads of state and the president is considered “first among equals” during the period in office.

Who are the current heads of state?

Currently, the federal councillors are Alain Berset (Home Affairs, Socialist Party/SP), Ueli Maurer (Finance, Swiss People’s Party/SVP), Ignazio Cassis (Foreign Affairs, Liberals/FDP), Guy Parmelin (Defence, SVP), Simonetta Sommaruga (Justice, SP), Doris Leuthard (Transport, Christian Democrats/CVP) and, finally, Johann Schneider-Ammann (Economics, FDP), who announced on Tuesday that he would retire at the end of the year.

Doris Leuthard is the longest-serving member of the Federal Council, having joined in 2006. Ignazio Cassis, who joined in 2017, is the most recent arrival.

What tasks is the Federal Council charged with?

Key tasks include establishing the objectives of Swiss federal government policy and deciding how to achieve these aims, as well as creating and implementing legislation. The Federal Council also manages the Swiss budget and national and international security while being responsible for international relations.

How are Federal Council members elected?

The Federal Council is not elected by the people but by the Federal Assembly. In a process akin to the election of a new Pope, members of the Federal Council are elected via secret ballot in several rounds.

Read here for more on the process of electing federal councillors.

Who is eligible to sit on the Federal Council?

In theory, any Swiss citizen with the right to vote can be a member of the Federal Council. Candidates do not have to be members of the Swiss parliament and do not have to be officially backed by a party, which means you can get 'wildcard' candidates.

However in practice, the various political parties nominate candidates they want to put forward, who are usually already serving in the federal or cantonal parliaments.

The Swiss constitution also states that “in electing the Federal Council, care must be taken to ensure that the various geographical and language regions of the country are appropriately represented.”

In recent years, there have also been calls for a quota on the number of women sitting on the Federal Council to be enshrined in the constitution, but more on that below.

How are new members of the Federal Council chosen?

This is a complicated process. Firstly, there is the issue of which parties are represented in the Federal Council, and how many seats they should have. This is dictated by what is referred to as the “magic formula” which is basically a way of dividing up seats among parties based on their level of election success.

This magic formula is an unofficial guideline rather than a law.

Currently, there are four parties represented, with the SP, the SVP and the FDP having two seats each, and the CVP having one seat. This could, in theory, change, depending on results in the 2019 elections.

Beyond the issue of party representation, the Federal Council also reflects different language groups and Swiss regions, as stated in the section above.

Generally, there is at least one French-speaking federal councillor (at present, we have Alain Berset and Guy Parmelin) and one Italian speaker (Ignazio Cassis, at the moment), although the mixture can change.

Women on the Federal Council

Then there is the issue of the number of women on the Federal Council, which has been very much in the news since Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann announced his retirement.

Currently, there are two women on the Federal Council (Leuthard and Sommaruga), but there are calls for a third woman to join that group. And with Schneider-Ammann leaving, fellow FDP politician Karin Keller-Sutter has been touted as a hot favourite to take over.

Read also: 14 fascinating facts about the history of women's rights in Switzerland

Also in Keller-Sutter's favour, apart from her being a woman, is the fact that she comes from the canton of St. Gallen and the region of eastern Switzerland is currently not represented in the government.

Her candidacy would also reflect well on the FDP which has, until now, only ever had one female federal councillor – Elisabeth Kopp who served in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, with veteran federal councillor Doris Leuthard set to resign by autumn 2019 at the latest, many commentators feel it is even more critical that Schneider-Ammann be replaced by a woman. This would ensure that Switzerland did not arrive at the end of next year with just woman in its seven-member government.

Read also: How Switzerland's direct democracy system works

 

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