Alberto Mingardi  

A right-turn for Switzerland?

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Some friends of mine are alarmed about the new course in Swiss politics. I tend to agree with Scott Sumner: Switzerland is my favourite political system. And I am not particularly alarmed by the latest elections, in which the Union démocratique du centre (UDC, Swiss People's Party in German) has increased its own consensus. The UDC was traditionally rooted in farming and rural communities, but evolved into a major player in the early 2000s, when Christoph Blocher became its main spokesman.

Blocher, whose daughter also won a Congressional seat in the last elections, is basically a conservative, who opposes what he regards as excessive immigration (particularly if coming from the Middle East) and doesn't want Switzerland to join the European Union. I don't necessarily agree with Blocher's ideas, (see here for a thoughtful defense of relatively open borders in Switzerland by Gerhard Schwarz) but I think it is ridiculous to claim that the UDC poses any threat to Swiss democracy. Also, given the persisting troubles of the European Union, I can hardly blame the Swiss, if they don't like the idea of joining the EU. On top of that, it needs to pointed out that for years the UDC won many battles through popular federal initiatives and referenda which it promoted.

Let's get back to the election. UDC gained 29% of the votes at the last assembly. In term of seats, it gained 11 seats: in the lower house it now has 65 seats out of 200.

Note that the UDC already gained 29% in the 2007 election and then 26% in 2011. Both times the party enjoyed a plurality in the legislature. And Swiss democracy seems to have survived rather well.

But what does electoral success mean as far as the government is concerned?
The new Swiss Federal Cabinet will be voted on by the Parliament in December. It has seven members and it is, as it is described in Wikipedia, a "voluntary grand coalition of political opponents". Switzerland is a directorial republic: it is the Council which is head of state, and precisely for this reason its decisions are taken in collegiality.

Now, the UDC gained a second seat at the table in 2003, when it reached 26% of the votes for the first time. This time, it will again have two people on the Council, which has't happened in the last few years, basically due to power-fights and defections within the party itself.

Is that going to affect Switzerland substantially? I doubt it. To me, all the fuss about Switzerland these days is basically due to one of the few regularities in democratic politics: the intellectual loves democracy, insofar as people are voting in a way she approves.

The Swiss political system is conceived to protect the country's institutions, and somehow to slow down the pace of political change: which might be a nightmare anywhere else, but in Switzerland is a blessing.

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CATEGORIES: Eurozone crisis

COMMENTS (5 to date)
Swissec writes:

Thank you Alberto for mentioning the rather unique grand coalition government, a little-known aspect of the Swiss democracy, but essential to its stability (btw the Liberal-Radical party has been in this coalition for the last 168 years). However you are putting the cart before the horse when you state that the Svp is sure to gain a second seat in the federal council, so putting an end to 8 years of center-left majority in the council. The parliament is still musing about it and the exit is open. But for the rest I agree with your analysis. A parliamentary election is not that important when you can have a referendum on most of the bills it passes.

Roger McKinney writes:

From what little I understand of Swiss history, they copied the US Constitution to a large degree, but never interpreted it as a "living" document as the US has and thereby destroyed it.

A minor point, but opposition to immigration shouldn't be considered "right" wing. As Mises shows in his "Omnipotent Government," socialists in Germany, the left, created the modern fear of immigrants by blaming them for the bad economies and lack of jobs their own socialist policies had created.

Nathan W writes:

The fact of a party that you don't like achieves electoral success does not mean that democracy is threatened.

It is only if that party uses its position to undermine key democratic practices, like the role of the courts, minority rights to protect against a potential "tyranny of the majority", electoral reforms designed to disenfranchise non-majority segments of the electorate, attacks on the press including a refusal on the part of leaders to open themselves to difficult lines of questioning, and others.

I'm not happy to see the far right becoming more popular in Switzerland, but imo it is ridiculous to consider it as a threat to democracy.

_NL writes:

I'm not too worried about Switzerland because of the SVP. But I'm not crazy about the turnout on the Minaret ban or the immigration protest vote. To the extent all three are indications of a growing xenophobic outlook (in a nation that's always had a strain of humble isolationism), I think that's bad for the Swiss society and economy.

But overall, it's not terribly unusual in the larger European context. Most European countries, whether they have a more conservative, more classically liberal, more social democratic, or more socialist culture, is struggling with xenophobia and migration. Even the normally chastened Germans are choking a bit.

Massimo writes:

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