By Lukas Lauener (University of Lausanne / Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences-FORS)

On 20 October, 5.3 million voters were called to the urns to elect the new Swiss Parliament for its 51th legislative period. The left-wing Green Party and the centrist Green Liberal Party got out as clear winners of the federal elections. This and last years’ climate strike movements not only motivated thousands of people to demonstrate for more climate protection measures in the streets but also had a massive mobilisation effect for the two parties bearing the word “green” in their names. Pollsters had predicted gains for these two parties already months before the parliamentary elections. Rather unexpected was however the magnitude of these electoral gains. The Green Party rose from a vote share of 7.1 per cent in 2015 to now 13.2 per cent. Through this gain, the Greens not only crossed the psychologically important threshold of 10 percent but also overtook the Christian Democrats to become the fourth-strongest party in the Lower House of the Swiss Parliament, the 200-member National Council.
This increase in vote share translated into 17 additional seats for the Greens (2015: 11 seats) in the National Council and makes up for the largest seat gain a political party has ever achieved since the introduction of proportional voting in 1919. Political scientist Pascal Sciarini from the University of Geneva aptly describes: “It’s more than a wave, it’s a tidal wave on the Swiss scale.” Indeed, party shares traditionally change only slightly between two federal elections and the political landscape is rather stable – with the exception of the rise of the far-right populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in the 1990s. The smaller environmentalist and more market-liberal party, the Green Liberal Party (that split from the Greens in 2004) gained 7.8 per cent in the Lower House elections, which is a plus of 3.2 percentage points compared to 2015. The Green Liberals will be represented in the National Council with 16 deputies (+9) in the next parliamentary period.

All major political forces in Switzerland lost the elections
The remaining four major parties all incurred – in some cases considerable – electoral losses. With 3.8 percentage points, the radical right Swiss People’s Party suffered the greatest loss. With 25.6 per cent of the vote, it remains however by far the strongest political force in the country and now accounts for 53 of the 200 members in the Lower House. In absolute numbers, the Swiss People’s Party lost 12 seats, which is, in historical terms, also a new record: Never before had a party lost as many seats since the introduction of proportional representation. The pre-election polls suggested that the SVP would lose votes but estimated the maximal decline not to go beyond 2.5 percentage points.

The Social Democrats did not have a glorious election day, either. The second strongest party recorded 16.8 per cent of the vote – its worst result in 100 years. Compared to the results in the 2015 parliamentary elections, the decline in vote shares amounts to 2 percentage points and manifests in a loss of four National Councillors. In the next legislative period, the Social Democratic Party will thus have 39 representatives in the Lower House. The Liberal Party remains the third strongest political force but loses vote shares and seats, too. It falls 1.3 percentage points and is now back on the level of 2011 with 15.1 per cent of the vote, which is, at the same time, the lowest Liberal vote share in history. In mathematical terms, the Liberal Party loses four seats and now holds 29 seats in the National Council. For both parties, the Social Democrats and the Liberals, these losses came rather as a surprise as pollsters had not anticipated them – at least not to that degree – but rather expected stability.

On the other hand, polls predicted significant losses for the Christian Democratic Party (CVP). However, the Christian Democrats got off lightly in the federal elections and lost only 0.2 percentage points. With a vote share of 11.4 per cent, they remain rather far away from the 10 per cent threshold but hand over their position as the fourth strongest political force to the Green Party. The number of CVP seats fell from 27 to 25 for the new legislative period. The ongoing downward trend has at least not been worsened for the CVP in this year’s elections despite the rather negative coverage in the media. The day after the elections, one of the most influential Swiss newspapers, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung even called the Christian Democrats the “secret winners of the elections”.

During the past four years, the Swiss People’s Party and the Liberal Party had a very slim majority of 101 seats in the National Council. This is no longer the case. For the centrist Christian Democrats, the new distribution of seats in parliament widens the room for manoeuvre between the right and the left block. As before, the CVP can form alliances with the SVP and the Liberals, but now centre-left majorities together with the Green Liberals, Greens and Social Democrats are also possible. If the latter three parties and the Christian Democrats harmonise, they will certainly shape environmental policy, but also other policy areas in the upcoming four years. Arithmetically, not only the CVP will be able to create majorities in the National Council but also the Green Liberals. In case the Christian Democrats adopt an insufficiently liberal position on an issue, the Green Liberal Party can seek to ally with the Liberals and the SVP to establish new majorities. According to political analyst Claude Longchamp, there will thus be two political parties – the CVP and the Green Liberal Party – that are able to assume the role of “majority creators” in the Lower House.

Representation in the National Council is only half of the story…
How and what new majorities will be created in the new legislative period does not only depend on the National Council but also on the Council of States which is the Upper House of the Swiss Parliament. Each canton has two representatives and the six so-called “semi-cantons” appoint one representative to the Council of States. Elections to the Upper House are cantonal elections meaning that 24 cantons have their distinct form of a majority voting system to elect their senators whereas two cantons (Neuchâtel and Jura) use a proportional system. In the federal elections on 20 October, 23 out of the 46 senators were elected. One canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden had already elected its only representative in April at the Landsgemeinde, the cantonal public voters’ assembly. For the remaining 22 seats, a second ballot is necessary, so that only on 17 November we will know with certainty about the final distribution of seats each party in the Council of States.

Because of the historically unique seat gain of the Green Party and the rise of the Green Liberal Party in the National Council, the 2019 Swiss federal elections can be characterised as “elections for the climate”. Moreover, they are also described as a “vote for more women” in Parliament. The national women’s strike on 14 June had mobilised hundreds of thousands of women to demonstrate against their persisting unequal treatment in the Swiss society, including lower pay, with women on average earning less than men. During the campaign leading to the federal elections several trade unions and women’s associations called upon citizens to deliberately vote for women. The call did not fail to have its effect: Never before have so many women been elected Members of Parliament as in the most recent federal elections. The share of women in the National Council rose from 32 per cent in 2015 to 42 per cent today. The Social Democrats and the Greens now have a women’s share of over 60 percent in their parliamentary groups and the Green Liberals a share of exactly 50 per cent. One in three MPs of the Liberal Party is a woman while this share attains lower levels for the Christian Democratic Party (28%) and the Swiss People’s Party (25%). Although the climate strike and women’s strike movements obviously had mobilisation effects on certain political and social groups, overall participation at the federal elections dropped slightly as only 45.1 per cent turned up at the polls compared to 48.5 per cent in 2015.

Green representation in the government?
In December after the parliamentary elections, the Federal Assembly, that is the National Council and the Council of States combined, elects the Swiss government, the Federal Council. The 7-member executive is a voluntary oversized coalition government composed according to the unwritten rule of concordance under which the strongest parties are represented in proportion of their electoral strengths. Since 1959 (with an interruption between 2008 and 2015), the so-called “magic formula” has been applied to distribute the seven seats among the most important political forces of the country: The three largest parties are granted two seats and the fourth party gets one seat in government. At the moment, the Swiss People’s Party, the Social Democrats and the Liberal Party each have two representatives in the Federal Council. The Christian Democrats as the fourth biggest party in 2015 have one seat.

The overwhelming victory of the Greens in this year’s elections and the fact the Green Party replaced the Christian Democratic Party as fourth strongest political force in the country have led to calls for a rethinking of the “magic formula”. The Greens demand to be represented in the Federal Council as well. Indeed, the four parties that are currently represented in the Federal Council take together have never performed as weakly as this year since the introduction of the “magic formula” in 1959. The Swiss government now represents 69 per cent of voters according to the combined party shares, this is the lowest number in 60 years. Arithmetically speaking, the Green Party’s claim to a seat in the Federal Council is legitimate. Yet the Greens are not as well represented in the Upper House as they are in the Lower House, and there’s historical precedent for the executive not exactly reflecting the electoral results of parties. History shows that things move not that fast in Switzerland with results being reflected in the government only years after the power shifts in the Parliament took place. After its foundation in 1917, the predecessor party of the SVP had to wait twelve years until it was represented in the Federal Council. The Social Democrats had to wait even longer. In 1919, the party could double the number of seats in the National Council to 41 thanks to the introduction of proportional voting. Nevertheless, it was not until 24 years later that the first Social Democrat was elected to the Federal Council. Historian Hans-Ulrich Jost reckons: “The Greens must consolidate their result in the next federal elections in four years before they can claim a seat in the Federal Council.”

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