Switzerland has just experienced one of the most stable elections, even by Swiss standards, with net volatility of just over 4% of the votes. The authors explain, why it is still perceived as a landslide victory of the right. In the very fragmented Swiss party system (5 effective parties in parliament), vote shifts only rarely lead to a considerable shift between the left and the right. This time, the right could make considerable gains of 15 seats in the lower house (National Council), where it now counts 101 out of 200 seats. Their seat gains were much more pronounced than their vote gains. This leads to a divided house between the National Council and the Senate.
The main winner of the 18 October was the national conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) that saw its share of votes increase by 2.8%, reaching a historical high of 29.4% which resulted in a net gain of 11 seats in the lower house (out of 200). On the other side of the political spectrum, the Greens (-1.3%) and the Social Democrats (SP) (+0.1%) had to give up four and three seats, respectively, with the consequence that the two leftist parties for the very first time hold less seats (54) than the nationalist-conservative SVP (65). While the Liberal Party FDP – representing an economic conservative position – increased their vote share for the first time in 36 years (+1.3%; +3 seats), the Christian Democrats (CVP) did not manage to halt their decline (-0.7%; -1 seat). Two small, and very young parties of the centre-right, the Bourgeois Democratic Party (BDP) and the Green Liberals (GLP) suffered losses of -1.3% and 0.8%, the latter losing 5 out of 12 seats in parliament.
Gains and losses of vote and seats are very disproportional to each other, as most of the 26 electoral districts (equal to the cantons) are very small. Only seven districts count 10 or more seats.While list apparentments allow parties partly to escape the electoral system bias against small competitors, they can even foster the discrepancies between the seat allocation and the vote distribution
In the lower house, the National Council, the economic conservatives FDP and the nationalist-conservatives SVP (jointly with two tiny parties of this camp) now occupy a razor-thin majority of 101 out of 200 seats.
The Senate will probably remain stable, so that the two right-wing parties need to rely on the Christian Democrats for a majority. The upper house is elected in most cantons by a two-round majority vote, leading to an overrepresentation of the FDP, the CVP, and lately also the Social Democrats , while the largest party, SVP does hard in succeeding to win seats in majority vote elections, holding only five out of 46 seats. A definitive assessment will only be possible after second rounds of elections have taken place in 12 out of 26 cantons by the end of November.
Electoral Campaign: Does hullabaloo trump substance?
The campaign 2015 has not only widely been seen as the most expensive campaign ever, it was also considered to be one without content. Event-wise, and in social media, personality and hullabaloo trumped substance. The peak of this campaign style was when a music video by the SVP, “Welcome to SVP”, entered the charts.
While in 2011, almost every party pursued its own popular initiative in the forefront of the elections, it was only the SVP that launched one in 2015: the self-determination initiative demanding that the Swiss Constitution stands above international law. However, given that other parties’ initiatives were rejected at the ballot or even failed at the stage of signature collection, this change in strategy may be comprehensible. Back then, the big exception was the “initiative against mass immigration” by the SVP that was accepted in February 2014 by a narrow majority of 50.3 percent of the voters and 17 out of 26 cantons. In order to implement the popular initiative, the Federal Council is assigned to renegotiate the Agreement on the free movement of persons with the EU – a still ongoing process. Given the significance of the bilateral treaties for Switzerland, it is surprising how little the relation with the EU has been brought up by the parties in the run-up to the elections, also shown by an analysis of parties’ press releases. The initiative and its potential effects, in turn, still receive enormous attention by the media in 2015 – in total even more than popular initiatives during the week before they were subjected to vote, as Figure 1 above shows.
On the omnipresence of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP)
In addition, the SVP reached omnipresence in terms of advertisements placed in print media. Together with the FDP, they accounted for about 60% of party ads published in newspapers (30% each), including expensive national-wide campaign ads in newspapers. Repeatedly, international organisations have expressed their concern with the absence of transparency about campaign funds. Campaigns are funded through private donations and membership fees.
In the campaign, the main issues emphasised by the SVP were their opposition to migration, refugees and EU integration, whereas the FDP was emphasising economic issues. The Social Democrats campaigned for social welfare, especially against cuts to the pension system.
While a party can influence their visibility in terms of campaign ads through their campaign strategy and the available financial means, they are not in direct control of their presence in the media. However, as Figure 2 above shows, the media accredits attention more or less in relation to a party’s strength, electing the SVP to the leading actor once more.
In a joint meeting on 9 December, the two houses of parliament will sequentially elect each of the seven ministers by majority vote. Since 1943 (with an interruption between 1953-9), the government is composed of the four largest parties, although one minister has been expelled from her own party. So far, out of seven seats, this is the only one which is disputed. Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (SVP) was elected to government in 2007, although not as an official party candidate, which is not uncommon. She was subsequently expelled by her own party, leading to the formation of a small split-off party, BDP. Now, the FDP as well as the SVP urge the parliament not to re-elect her. They argue that the small BDP party, with only 7 seats in the lower house, does not bring in the necessary weight for representation in government. Her supporters, including the left and the Christian Democrats, refer to an iron rule, according to which ministers should only be fired after major scandals or bad performance in office. However, they also fear that the seat of the BDP is taken over by the SVP, which would move the balance to a government dominated by FDP and SVP.
 Note to Figure 1: Analysis based on automated information retrieval of 82 Swiss online news resources (59 in German, 14 in French, and 9 in Italian language). Data: Année politique suisse.
 Note to Figure 2: Analysis based on automated information retrieval of 82 Swiss online news resources (59 in German, 14 in French, and 9 in Italian language). Data: Année politique suisse.