Greens set for major gains in Swiss elections

Voter concern about climate change could trigger a "green wave" in Switzerland's elections on Sunday, possibly yielding unprecedented gains for parties that back bold action to protect the planet.

Greens set for major gains in Swiss elections

Under Switzerland's unique political system, the nationwide vote will decide the 200 lower house lawmakers and 46 senators elected to four-year terms, but the make-up of the executive Federal Council will not be decided until December 11. 

The country's so-called “magic formula” sees the council's seven cabinet positions divided among the four leading parties in the legislative branches, with the presidency rotating each year among the cabinet members.

The Green Party has never performed well enough to claim a Federal Council seat, but polls suggest its fortunes are rising.

This year, it could push its way into the executive branch through a coalition with the Green Liberal Party, according to experts and recent polls.

“We have every intention of being a force in government because I believe that is what Switzerland needs,” Green Party vice president Lisa Mazzone told AFP.

'Top of the agenda' 

In the 2015 vote, the anti-immigrant right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) stood first with 29.4 percent support.

The SVP, which has repeatedly been accused of waging campaigns that demonise migrants, remains atop the polls with 27.3 percent support, according to a survey released this month by public broadcaster RTS.

The poll also indicated that the Green Party, which won 7.1 percent in 2015, is now backed by 10.7 percent of voters.

And it gave the Green Liberals 7.3 percent support, an uptick on the 4.6 percent of the vote they took in 2015.

University of Geneva political scientist Pascal Sciarini told AFP that the data shows that anxiety about migration, the dominant issue in 2015, “has dropped significantly”.

“Concerns about climate change are now at the top of the Swiss agenda,” he said. But the path for a staunch environmentalist to claim a Federal Council seat is complicated.

There are substantial divisions between the Greens and Green Liberals, notably over the state's role in socio-economic affairs, and the two parties may not be able to agree on a unity candidate for a ministerial post, experts and party officials said.

'Dormant' electorate

The rising environmental concerns of the Swiss electorate were on display in a series of recent demonstrations.

Tens of thousands of people turned out in several cities in April for “climate strikes” partly inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Last month, 100,000 people marched through the capital Bern demanding comprehensive climate action from the next government, a significant turnout for a country of 8.5 million people.

Of the four parties that currently hold Federal Council seats, only the SVP are climate change sceptics, having denounced the role of “climate hysteria” in Swiss politics.

The Socialists have dubbed their programme a “Marshall Climate Plan,” while the right-leaning Free Democratic Party has called for higher taxes on air tickets to offset emissions from jets.

That represents a major shift for a party previously silent on environmental policy.

In a campaign that has seen multiple parties tout their climate credentials, the Green strategy has relied on mobilising “a dormant electorate,” Mazzone told AFP.

Average turnout in a national Swiss election is typically below 50 percent and Mazzone explained the party has “identified a lot of potential among abstainers, especially young people.”

The director of the Sotomo political research firm, Michael Hermann, told RTS that the shift from immigration to climate as the country's top political issue is one of the most dramatic pivots he has seen in Swiss politics.

“The green wave is rolling along,” he said.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Everything you need to know about Switzerland’s paternity leave referendum

In September Switzerland will vote on a federal initiative extending paternity leave nationwide. Here’s what you need to know.

Everything you need to know about Switzerland’s paternity leave referendum
A Swiss baby. Image: DANIEL MIHAILESCU / AFP

On September 27th, Switzerland will hold a vote featuring five referenda topics – including three which were originally scheduled for May but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Among the five points is the controversial paid paternity leave initiative. 

READ: Switzerland to hold referendum on paternity leave 

What is the initiative? 

While mothers have had paid maternity leave for 15 years under Swiss law, Swiss fathers are currently only entitled to one day off upon the birth of their child.

This is significantly less than most of Switzerland’s European neighbours.  

The plan is to extend this to two weeks for all biological fathers. 

The scheme will cover 80 percent of lost earnings for the two-week period. 


How much will the plan cost and who will pay for it? 

The expected cost of the plan is CHF230 million ($245 million), although this is a high estimate based on increasing birth rates and higher-earning fathers. 

The money is paid out of Switzerland’s state insurance system, which is funded half by employers and the other half by employees. 

The measure would require an increase of 0.05 points in the social contributions, the referendum’s sponsors say.

Who is entitled to it?

Only biological fathers are entitled to the leave – meaning adoption cases are excluded. 

In order to receive the benefit, fathers will need to have worked for a minimum of five months in Switzerland. 

In addition, they must have contributed into Switzerland’s pension scheme for at least nine months. 

READ: Why does Switzerland have so many referendums and how do they work? 


Who is in favour of the bill – and why is it being put to a vote? 

As reported on recently in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), the plan has had a tumultuous history. 

Originally, the proposal was supported by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and opposed by the Swiss political establishment, including current health Minister Alain Berset of the Social Democrats. 

The parties have done a switcheroo. Now, while it is supported by Berset and much of the Swiss political establishment, it is opposed by the SVP and other right-wing groups. 

Berset said it was necessary to support families and to improve equality between men and women under Swiss law. 

While it was passed by Swiss parliament, the reason it came to a vote was due to the SVP and other right-wing opponents gathering more than 50,000 signatures. 

As per Switzerland’s direct democracy rules, it must now be put to a nationwide referendum. 

Will it pass? 

As yet, polling has been spotty. 

The NZZ reports that the initiative has a “good” chance of succeeding, although the failure of previous initiatives has supporters sceptical. 

Why is Switzerland behind its neighbours?

Paternity leave has been fuelling political debates in Switzerland for years, with the parliament repeatedly turning down various proposals that called for a four-week leave. 

Last September deputies finally backed the one calling for a two-week leave, seeing it as a compromise in the face of the four-week proposal developed by the trade union Travail Suisse.

Mothers in Switzerland receive 14 weeks' leave at 80 percent pay, up to a maximum of 196 francs a day.

Overall, Switzerland rates poorly in comparison with other European nations when it comes to parental leave.

According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have best family-friendly policies among 31 rich countries, while Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Ireland rank the lowest.