elections For Members

Everything you need to know about the Swiss elections

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Everything you need to know about the Swiss elections
Fie photo of the Swiss parliament. Photo: AFP

Swiss voters go to the polls in just under two weeks time. Here's what you need to know to understand what's at stake in the parliamentary elections and what the outcome might be.


How does the election work?

On October 20th, the Swiss voters will head to the polls to elect 245 members of the Federal Assembly: 200 for the lower house of parliament (see photo below), the National Council, and 45 of the 46 members of the upper house, the Council of States.

One of the cantons, Appenzell Innerrhoden, already elected its candidate in April. 

All Swiss citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote in federal elections as well as in referendums. All households with adult citizens receive relevant voting materials — explanation of the issues and a ballot — by mail several weeks prior to the vote.

Most people send in their ballots by post, but some still prefer to cast their vote in person at a polling station. Voting always takes place on a Sunday every four years.


How many seats does each canton have in the parliament?

In the National Council, the 26 cantons are represented proportionally to the total number of permanent residents.

In the upper house Council of States, each canton has two seats, regardless of the size of its population. The exceptions are the former half-cantons which only have one seat each.

Which parties will be running and on what issues?

As in other European countries, Switzerland’s parties run the gamut from right-wing to ultra-liberal. The biggest parties vying for seats in the parliament are:

Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC) is a populist party which campaigns against immigration and Switzerland’s membership in the European Union. It is currently the largest party in the Federal Assembly. It holds 65 seats in the National Council and five in the Council of States.

Social Democratic Party (SP/PS). This left-leaning party is the second-largest, standing for social justice, wage protection, and gender equality in the workforce. It is affiliated with Switzerland’s labor unions. The party has 43 seats in the National Council and 12 in the Council of States.

Liberal-Radical Party (FDP/PLR) Leaning to the centre-right, it is third-largest party in the National Council, and the largest in the Council of States. Its positions include protection of civil liberties and economic freedom. It holds 43 seats in the National Council and 13 in the upper house.

The Christian Democrats (CVP/PDC). This centrist party is the fourth-largest in the National Council and the largest in the Council of States. It is pro-market economy, education, research and development. The party has 27 seats in the National Council and 13 in the council of States.

The Green Party campaigns for the environmental protection and social engagement, both locally and globally. It has 11 seats in the National Council and one in the Council of States.

What issues are of most importance to Swiss voters? 

According to a poll conducted by the Zurich-based Sotomo research institute in September, rising health insurance premiums and climate change are the top priority for the Swiss voters. Most are also concerned that the funding for their pensions — the social security system — continues regardless of economic trends. And some voters, especially those who support the right-wing Swiss People's Party, are keen to curb immigration.


What is different in this year’s election?

Numbers from The Federal Statistical Office indicate that a record number of candidates will run for election: 4,645 candidates are vying for a seat, which is 21% more than four years ago. Women will constitue 40.3% percent of the candidates — also a record number. That is all the more impressive considering that Swiss women got the right to vote only in 1971.

Can we expect any surprises?

If the Sotomo poll is any indication, Greens are expected to make significant and unprecedented progress, with an estimated 10.5% of the vote; that is nearly 3.5% over the 2015 elections. “It would be the best election result the Greens have ever achieved in Switzerland,” Sotomo said on its website. The Swiss People’s Party could lose 2.6% of votes, but still remain on top.

Should expatriates and foreigners care about the election results?

Anyone who lives in Switzerland has a stake in the outcome of the election, as policies affect everyone, regardless of citizenship and nationality. Hot-button issues such as soaring health insurance premiums, the effects of the climate change, and the future of the pension schemes that expats have paid into while working in Switzerland, should of concern everyone living here. And any changes in the immigration policy that could impact foreigners are certainly important as well. 

So what happens after the election?

On the first day of the parliamentary session following the election, December 2nd, the newly elected members of the parliament are sworn in.

On December 11th, the parliament, also known as the Federal Assembly, elects members of the Federal Council (the seven-member Cabinet that acts as a collective head of state), the president, and vice-president. The president is elected for one year only and does not have any special power.

by Helena Bachmann




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