Swiss election produces first change in government since 1959

International news, January 2004

Dateline 01 January 2004

While elections loom across the United States in 2004, the Swiss federal political system is undergoing changes of its own, having moved sharply to the right.

To understand fully the changes, a bit of background on Switzerland's peculiar political system is needed.

The four major parties have jointly controlled the executive since 1959. Two of them have been in power since 1891. In the lower house of Parliament, cantons have representation in line with their size. Zurich, the most populous, has the largest representation. In the upper house each full canton has two representatives and half cantons have one. As in the United States, it is by adding together the representation of the houses of the legislature that you define the representation in the electoral college, which chooses the executive.

But unlike the United States, the executive is not one person, but a seven-person committee, chosen by Parliament. Similar to the United States, the executive is not accountable to Parliament once elected.

The elections changed the balance of power between the four parties that make up the executive:
• The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which favours pro-market economic policies and has recently begun to emphasise anti-immigrant rhetoric and opposition to joining the European Union. The party, led by Christoph Blocher, was the only one of the major parties to oppose joining the UN in the 2002 referendum.
• The Radical Democrats (FDP), which favours low taxes and free enterprise.
• The Christian Democrats (CVP), a moderate party that is particularly strong in the Catholic cantons.
• The Social Democrats (SP), a left-wing party that opposes deregulation initiatives.

Going into the autumn 2003 elections the SVP had one seat in the federal council (cabinet), while the other parties had two each. The SVP has gained one at the expense of the moderate Christian Democrats. Overall the elections represented a strong shift to the right. The retiring finance minister – a Radical Democrat – was replaced by a candidate from the right wing of his party.

“Whether this will mean any major shifts in policy remains to be seen," said Dr. Paolo Dardanelli, who runs the Centre for Swiss Politics at England’s Kent University. “Switzerland is heavily de-centralised, with cantons taking a great many decisions. Also the cabinet does not wield a great deal of power and its decisions can be overturned by referendum. Both the SP and the SVP have resorted to the tactic of calling referendums for this purpose in the past, even though they are both part of the government.

“There has been speculation that the SP may resign from the government if they become too disgruntled with the shift to right, but that is not very likely in the short term.

“The clearest winner of the election was undoubtedly Christoph Blocher and his SVP, but now Blocher has responsibility for immigration policy and it will not be as easy for him to criticise. His supporters will expect him to deliver policy change.”

Swiss foreign policy will remain determinedly non-aligned, indeed Switzerland may formally withdraw its currently stalled application to join the European Union.

Copyright (C) Quentin Langley 01 January 2004

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