Here's what's at stake in the Swiss Federal Council elections

George Mills
George Mills - [email protected]
Here's what's at stake in the Swiss Federal Council elections
Federal Council elections in December 2015. File photo: AFP

On Wednesday, the Swiss parliament will vote in two new members of the seven-member government known as the Federal Council. But what does that actually mean for the Swiss political life in the coming years?


Don't expect fireworks

Wednesday is a big day for Swiss politics. In a secret ballot, the parliament will vote in two new members of the Federal Council, the country's seven-member executive.

This is the closest thing that Switzerland has to a presidential election. A seat on the Federal Council is the apex of a career in Swiss politics and the national media have spent the last few weeks examining the virtues and vices of the candidates.

READ ALSO: Ten things you need to know about the Swiss political system

But anyone expecting a huge shift in Swiss politics after tomorrow's elections will most likely come away disappointed.

Under the unique Swiss system, the government represents all of the country's four major political parties with the balance between these parties guided by the so-called "magic formula" which aims to ensure adequate representation for each party.

The current Swiss government with Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr (far right). Photo: AFP

What this means is that the elections on Wednesday will see one member of the Christian Democrats (CVP) replace the current CVP Environment Minister, Doris Leuthard, while one member of the Liberals (FDP) will replace the Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann (also FDP).

So will anything actually change? Is it a question of business as usual? The Local spoke recently to Yves Wegelin, co-managing editor of Swiss weekly Die Wochenzeitung, to find out.

A shift to the right

For Wegelin, the December 5th vote comes in the context of a general move to the right in Swiss politics in the last two decades, spurred on by the "pioneering right-wing populism of the Swiss People's Party (SVP)".

The SVP – Switzerland's most-voted party – was behind both the infamous 2009 anti-minaret initiative and the 2014 'against mass immigration initiative'.

Speaking to The Local, Wegelin explained that the most important election for seats in the Federal Council in recent times was in 2003, when the right-wing SVP shook up four decades of stability and took a second seat on the executive at the expense of the centrist Christian Democrats (CVP).

The other key federal council election took place in 2017 when the FDP put forward a candidate who was further to the right than his predecessor Didier Burkhalter: the current foreign minister Ignazio Cassis.

Ignazio Cassis is sworn in as federal councillor in 2017. Photo: AFP

In this context, "the 2018 election could be seen a small shift [to the right]," he said.

He noted that Liberals (FDP) candidate Karin Keller-Sutter – the hot favourite to replace Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann in the government – is a little more to the right than Schneider-Ammann.

"Keller-Sutter is strong on asylum, for example, whereas Schneider-Ammann has never shown himself to be that interested in the issue."

Putting it in perspective

But Wegelin was also keen to put the importance of the Federal Council in perspective.

"The Federal Council is a key body, but it is not like in England [where a single party in government can push through legislation]. Switzerland has a concordance system [with all the major parties represented]."

This means decisions are based on constant compromise between political interests. At the same time, the Swiss government is constantly arm wrestling with the parliament, as its recent decision to backtrack on signing the United Migrations pact shows.

In the case of the UN migration pact, the parliament demanded the opportunity to discuss the issues involved before the government made a final decision, forcing the executive to step away from an initial promise it would pledge support for the pact.

A quiet revolution

There is one way, however, in which Wednesday's vote could prove a quiet revolution.

While the country's different regions and language groups have traditionally been represented in the Swiss Federal Council, there have never been any guidelines, spoken or unspoken, as to the number of women in the government.

But now, Wegelin says, an "informal agreement" is developing that there should be "at least three".

FDP candidate for the Swiss Federal Council Karin Keller-Sutter. Photo: Swiss Parliament

Three of the four candidates for the elections on Wednesday are women and the only man on the ticket – Hans Wickli of the FDP – has next to no chance of being elected as his competition is Karin Keller-Sutter.

That means, if all goes as expected, Switzerland will indeed have three women on its seven-member executive in the years to come.



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