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Switzerland's Political System

Switzerland's Political Parties

The following table shows the strenth of the parties in Switzerland since the creation of the federal state in 1848. Numbers are given in percent unless for the number of goverment members. Since parliament elections take place every four years in autumn and the government is elected by the newly constituted parliament in December, new government members will take up office the year following their election.
  NC = National Council (big parliament chamber, "house of representatives")
  G = number of government members

Party 1919 1928 1943 1959 1971 1983 1999 2003 Blocks
NC G NC G NC G NC G NC G NC G NC G NC G 1971 2003
Labor Party / Left Alternative 0% - 1% - 0% - 1.5% - 2.5% - 0.5% - 1.5% - 2% - 25.5% 34.5%
Progressive / Greens - - - - - - - - 0% - 3% - 4.5% - 6.5% -
Social Democratic Party 22% - 25% - 29% 1 26% 2 23% 2 23.5% 2 25.5% 2 26% 2
Conservative Catholics /
Christian Democratic Party
22% 2 23% 2 22% 2 24% 2 22% 2 21% 2 17.5% 2 14% 1 30% 16%
Small moderate parties 0.5% - 0.5% - 4% - 6% - 8% - 5.5% - 2.5% - 2% -
Free Democratic Party 33% 5 29% 4 24% 3 26% 2 24.5% 2 27% 2 21.5% 2 18% 2 27.5% 20%
Liberal Party 5.5% - 3% - 4% - 2.5% - 3% - 4% - 3% - 2% -
Democratic Party 4% - 2% - 3% - 2% - 1% - 11.5% 1 22% 1 27.5% 2 17% 29.5%
Farmer's & Craftsmen's Party /
Swiss People's Party
13% - 16% 1 14% 1 12% 1 10.5% 1
Small nationalist parties 1% - 0.5% - 0% - 0% - 5.5% - 4% - 2% - 2% -
Total parties in government 55% 7 68% 7 89% 7 88% 7 80% 7 83% 7 85.5% 7    

When in 1919 the national council was for the first time elected according to the proportional representation system instead of the majority election system, the Free Democrativ Party lost its overwhelming majority and had to give a second government seat to the Conservative Catholic Party to secure a parliamentary majority. In 1929, a time of worldwide economic and political crisis, the Farmer's and Craftsmen's Party was taken into the coalition. The small chamber of parliament (representation of the cantons [federal states of Switzerland], two members per canton) is completely dominated by the four parties in government - there is rarely any seat at all for some other party. The 1959 solution to have all big parties in government with government seats attributed according to party strength is called "Zauberformel" [magic formula]. This principle has not been changed in 2003, only the Christian Democratic Party became the junior partner to the benefit of the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party according to the number of parliamentary seats.

What is the relevance of the 2003 elections - apart from the second government seat for the right-wing Swiss People's Party? Some observers talk of a "a politcal landslide to the right". Depending on the point of view, this may seem correct or false - anyway it is only half of the truth. Let's have a closer look of what has happened since 1971:

  • The political left-wing block has gained 9% or one third. While the Social Democrats could slightly improve, the Greens have established themselves as a fifth major party.
  • The center is eroding. Both Christian and Free Democrats are loosing ground fast - and the small moderate and liberal parties do so even more. The Independent's Party - in the 1950's and 1960's the fifth party - has dissolved itself. The center has lost its ability to determine things in parliament (36% instead of 57.5%).
  • The populist Swiss People's Party is absorbing votes not only from the center but as well from the extreme nationalists.
  • There is a strong tendency towards more confrontation and less willingness to (what used to have been typically Swiss) compromise.
  • When it comes to voting in parliament, the Social Democratic Party and the Greens can hardly be distinguished, because they (have to) unite against the bourgeois block But there is one field the leftists disagree: European integration is seen as a chance by the Social Democrats and as hazard to the environment by the Greens. So their common positions in favor of multiculturalism and for an open society might get less attention by some observers than it deserves.
  • Depending on the subject, anything is possible now - a middle left coalition (50.5% or even 70.5% including the liberals), as well as a bourgeois coalition (65.5%). As before, the electorate has the final word thanks to the frequent referendums. And several important referendum results of 2002 (UN membership - finally accepted) and of 2004 (paid maternity leave accepted) show that chances for an open and social society remain intact.
Interpretation
  • The trend towards more confrontation and less compromise is partly due to the fainting of external threat (only a minority of elderly people can remember Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy wanting to incorporate parts of Switzerland, and even the cold war is over).
  • Partly the new trend to confrontation is also due to the new situation of the electronic mass media: in the 1970's one Swiss National Public Television program competed with two German and two Austrian or three French or three Italian programs programs per language region, today you can choose between 50 programs on cable tv and some more via individual satellite dishes. Quota driven radio and television stations do press politicians to short and undifferenciated statements.
  • People in rural catholic areas of central Switzerland and individuals whose grandparents have migrated from there to the industrialised (formerly protestant) cities do no longer think in the political categories of the 19th century (moral conservatism vs. liberalism), their political convictions reflect today's problems: social security, environment, public services. So the common religious-moral basis of the Christian Democratic Party (90% catholic members/electorate) is eroding more and more.

Literature and links concerning Switzerland's Political System:



Homepages of Switzerland's major five political parties
Please note that these websites were designed for "internal" Swiss use, therefore you will find German, French and Italian language articles there.


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