EXPLAINED: What you need to know about the Swiss Federal Council election

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about the Swiss Federal Council election
Illustration photo: The previous Swiss Federal Council elected in December 9, 2015 at the House of Parliament in Bern. AFP

On December 11th, Swiss MPs will elect the Federal Council, a seven-member body that acts as the collective head of state. The cabinet will be in place until the next election in 2023.


Who will elect the new Federal Council?

Unlike in other countries, the government or council to be more precise is not elected directly by the people. Swiss voters elect members of the parliament — the Federal Assembly — who are then responsible for electing the Federal Council from among the candidates who are running for the seven seats.

The MPs from both chambers of the Federal Assembly — the 200-seat National Council and the 46-seat Council of States — elect the cabinet jointly. Votes are cast by secret ballot in several rounds, until someone receives the absolute majority of votes.

What exactly does the Federal Council do?

It has multiple tasks. According to the Council’s website, “the most important task of the Federal Council is to govern. It continually assesses the current situation, determines the objectives of state governance and the means of achieving them, oversees their implementation and represents the Swiss Confederation both at home and abroad. The Federal Council deals with about 2,500 items of business a year. These mainly involve items of information and draft legislation presented to parliament”. 

Each councilor also heads a federal department

Why are there seven people in the Federal Council?

The cabinet has been composed of the same four political parties for more than 60 years. They divide the seven seats according to the so-called “magic formula”, which is a uniquely Swiss phenomenon. It is based on the "2-2-2-1” formula, which means two cabinet seats each for the Radicals, Christian Democrats, and Social Democrats, and one seat for the Swiss People's Party.

Why is this formula referred to as “magic”? Possibly because the power is not vested in one individual, but is divided among seven people, therefore ensuring that a single person can't become too powerful, at the detriment of others.

Are there many disagreements among the federal councilors?

We don’t know what exactly goes on behind closed doors. But we do know that, publicly at least, cabinet members practice the principle of collegiality and compromise. Such a “civilised” approach to governing means that all the decisions are taken collectively, regardless of personal politics or beliefs of individual members.

What can we expect of the upcoming Federal Council election? Will there be any surprises?

Since the Green Party garnered a 13-percent support in the parliamentary elections in October, this historic win might mean that a member of the party will get a seat on the Federal Council and challenge the long-held composition of the cabinet.

Green Party president Regula Rytz has been nominated to run for a seat. If she is elected, she would probably get one of the seats currently held by the Radical party, and head the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. 

Does Switzerland have a President?

Yes, the president is elected by the Federal Assembly from among the seven cabinet members for a one-year term. However, he or she has no special powers and it is mostly a ceremonial role — for example, representing Switzerland abroad.

By the way, if you have no clue who the president was this year, don’t worry — most Swiss don’t know either. (Hint: it was Ueli Maurer).

by Helena Bachmann



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