Would the popular election of the Swiss Federal Council be detrimental to federalism?

Seminar Paper 2010 22 Pages

Politics - Political Systems - General and Comparisons


Table of contents

1. How federal is the Swiss Federal Council? - Custom vs. mandate

2. Past reform efforts – Mere failures or a strategic tool?

3. The 2009 SVP proposal
3.1 The proposal in detail
3.2 Pros and cons
3.3 The small print matters
3.4 In whose interest is the election by popular vote?

4. Reform light – Operation vs. procedure

5. The democratic vs. the federalist principle


On February 2nd, 2010, the Swiss Peoples Party (SVP) launched a popular initiative for the election of the Swiss federal council by popular vote. It is the third attempt of this kind, the efforts of 1900 and 1942 having failed respectively. There are several reasons why this might be the right time to try once again. Foreign policy debacles like the recent Libya- crisis or the hasty de facto immolation of the Swiss banking secrecy amid growing pressure from the US and the EU have, on the one hand, led to harsh criticism addressed to Hans- Rudolf Merz, head of the federal department of finance and to the assessment of a leadership problem of the Swiss Federal Council as a whole on the other. While the effort of the SVP might as well be responding to such criticism, it will have the comfortable side effect of setting the agenda for the national council elections in 2011, framing the SVP in its usual oppositional role. In the meantime, the federal council puts forward its own proposal of government reform, shifting the focus to organization and away from procedure. The issue of reform, not being a new one, enables the Federal Council to draw from the results of the „Vernehmlassungsverfahren zur Staatsleitungsreform“1 which had been initiated in November of 1998 and concluded in March 1999.

This paper aims to discuss the SVP proposal in light of past attempts, conflicting democratic and federalist interests as well as rival proposals. Mainly, it tries to answer the question of whether the election of the federal council by popular vote might upset the federalist aspect of the current power sharing arrangement.

1. How federal is the Swiss Federal Council? - Customs vs. mandate

Up to 1891, the liberal party dominated the Swiss federal council. In 1891 the Catholic conservatives gained their first seat. In 1918, the proportional election of the national council became law. In 1929 the SVP, then BGB, gained a seat, followed in 1943 by the first social democrat (SP) seat.2

In 1959, the magic formula for power sharing became the custom. Federal council seats were distributed according to the following schema: FDP 2, CVP 2, SP 2, and SVP 1. Also known as arithmetical concordance, this informal rule aims at embedding the four largest political parties into a broad power sharing executive, representing 80% of Swiss voters3. In 2003, the election of Christoph Blocher (SVP) changed the magic formula, leaving the CVP with only one federal council. Important to note is, that the composition of the magic formula as it presents itself today, does neither represent the actual seating according to votes in the national council election from fall 2007 in which case it should be as follows: SVP 2, SP 2, FDP 1, CVP 1, green party (GP) 1, nor does it represent the actual strength of the factions in parliament, in which case the ratio should be: SVP 2, CVP 2, FDP 1, SP 1, GP 1, BGB 0. Hence, the composition of the magic formula and thus the composition of the federal council is solely at the discretion of parliamentary politics and political bargaining.4

The organization and electoral procedure of the federal council are regulated in articles 174-179 of the Swiss Federal Constitution (SR 101) and articles 132seq. of the Swiss Parliament Act (SR 171.10). In an amendment to article 175 of the constitution, adopted in 1999, a provision was made for the appropriate representation of the various geographical and language regions in electing the federal council. This formal provision is the only one of its kind in the Swiss constitution, concerning the federal character of the federal council. Neither the representation of political parties nor an equal gender representation is regulated by law. There is however an inherent necessity to integrate as many referendum powers as possible into the executive, so as to enable the passing of referendums, constitutional amendments and revisions of statutes. Thus, the aspect of equal representation of political parties in the federal council is solely determined by informal rules and custom. Until 2003, the magic formula was able to withstand the growing polarization in the party system.

There are at least two reasons for this relative stability. Traditionally, there has been a strong consensus among Swiss parties on important issues, partly because party cleavages crosscult cleavages of linguistic, religious, regional and economic interest groups, which has a moderating effect.5 Secondly, the incorporation of all major political parties into the executive by way of an agreed-upon proportional arrangement adds to the stability.

2. Past reform efforts – Mere failures or a strategic tool?

The reform efforts of 1900 and 1942 were closely linked to party politics. In 1900, the catholic conservatives (KK) together with the social democrats (SP) ported the initiative, underlining the advancement of the KK that clearly wanted to consolidate and broaden their minority seating in the federal council. However, the advance was voted down by 65% of the popular vote with a 58.8% turnout and 16 cantons opposed. As Table 1 shows, the election result of 1900 mirrors somewhat the religious cleavage between Roman Catholic and protestant cantons. A comparison with the Swiss religious map, presented in Table 2, makes that connection exceedingly clear.

In 1942, the social democrats (SP) launched a second initiative that again was voted down by 67.6% of the popular vote with a turnout of 62% and, this time, all cantons opposed. Here, the SP was on its way into the federal council, having thus far been successfully opposed by the liberals. Not surprisingly, the SP reform effort got indirectly rewarded by the party gaining its first seat in the federal council in 1943. Comparing Tables 2 and 3, the religious cleavage seems to be present in the 1942 election as well. Table 4 allows a matching with the strength of the Christian Democratic Party in 1943 to illustrate this point.

Despite their dismissal, both the 1900 and 1942 had the indirect effect of strengthening the executive power of the KK and SP party respectively and can thus be seen as an effective strategic tool by the parties to ensure their representation in the executive body.6

3. The 2009 SVP proposal

In light of the indirect effects of the 1900 and 1942 proposals, the new proposal by the SVP might be a similar attempt for the SVP to push for its fair representation in the federal council. One indicator underlining this argument is the fact that a mere threat by the SVP to launch such an initiative back in 2003 resulted in the doubling of their federal council representation in the same year. In order to analyze the current situation more thoroughly, the 2009 proposal shall be presented in detail, the pros and cons weighed and the possible winners and losers identified.

3.1 The proposal in detail

The SVP proposal7 foresees an election every four years by majority vote (two-ballot majority runoff) with the whole country being one electoral district. In order to protect the language minorities, the proposal intends guaranteed representation for the latin language regions. Two of the seven members must be elected from the following cantons: Ticino, Vaud, Neuchâtel, Geneva or Jura, the French speaking parts of the cantons Berne, Fribourg, Valais or the Italian speaking parts of the canton Grisons. Should this criterion not be met after the election, those two candidates will be elected who reach the highest geometric medial of the total number of votes and the votes of the afore mentioned cantons. Candidates who do not live in one of these cantons and scored lowest in the national count will drop out. The federal council shall elect the federal president for a term of one year, as it is currently done.

3.2 Pros and cons

Arguments in favor of a popular majority vote cite the greater legitimacy that the executive body would gain. A popular vote of the federal council would thus lead to the equalization of legitimacy between the federal council and parliament. Proponents criticize a lack of separation of powers with the current system and note that there currently exists an inequality before law as the national council votes with 200 and the council of states with only 46 votes. Furthermore, they feel that a popular vote of the federal council would activate the political debate in the country and lead to higher turnouts.8

Opponents fear that a popular election would bring with it an americanization of the voting process and a bias towards candidates with big budgets, giving even more power to the media and their coverage of favored candidates. Another fear is the possible election of populists and demagogues or more generally of outliers, not backed by a political party and a politics of personality in general. They see a turning away from the concordance principle to a situation of fierce competition between the candidates on the one hand and further polarization of the parties on the other. One of the more weighty arguments is that a popular vote would marginalize language minorities, disadvantage smaller cantons and weaken the position of the cantons in general.9

With the popular election of the federal council, Switzerland would move away from the logic of a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system. As the executive would no longer be dependent on the parliament for its election, it might find it less necessary to strike a balance between the heterogeneous party political interests. What is more is that an executive that deems itself more independent of parliament will most likely disturb the logic of the consultation process, which is vital for Swiss politics.10 Largely because of the existence of the referendum and the popular initiative, Switzerlands method of political decision-making is one of ‘amicable agreement’.11 The greater legitimacy of the federal council could lead to executive – legislative stalemates as the two are likely to have divergent preferences.12


1 EJPD (1999)

2 Schoch (2009)

3 Linder (2003): 7

4 Nebelspalter (2009)

5 Steiner (1974): 49

6 Longchamp (2009a)

7 http://www.admin.ch/ch/d/pore/vi/vis380t.html

8 Arbeitsgruppe der SVP Schweiz (1999): 6f.

9 Arbeitsgruppe der SVP Schweiz (1999): 12f.

10 Feld, Lars P. (2010): 42f.

11 Barry (1975): 483

12 Lijphart (2004): 102


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1 MB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Zurich – Institut für Politikwissenschaft
Föderalismus Bundesrat Direktwahl Regierungsreform Schweiz




Title: Would the popular election of the Swiss Federal Council be detrimental to federalism?