Green parties were the main winners from the 2019 Swiss federal elections held on 20 October. Clive H. Church explains that in a country known for the stability of its party system, the gains made by the Green Party and the Green Liberals were striking. However, given the unique way in which governments are formed in Switzerland, and with a number of seats still to be decided in the country’s upper house, it is far from clear how the upsurge in green support will translate into policy change.

Swiss elections not being the most exciting of events, there is a tendency for the media and others to overplay the significance of slight changes in the fragmented but stable Swiss political system in which change is measured in inches not yards. Thus, in 2015, they made much of what they, wrongly, saw as a coming new right-wing majority. This year, however, the excited headlines talking of a Green tsunami or earthquake, may have more justification. Nonetheless, not all the expected changes came about, and, despite the striking green gains, many questions remain open about how Swiss politics will actually develop over the next few months and years.

The results

The most dramatic result of the elections was the dual breakthrough of the country’s two environmentalist parties. First, the main, left leaning, Green party (GPS) attracted an extra 6.1% of the vote, virtually doubling its share of the vote. This was the greatest increase since the People’s Party’s (SVP) breakthrough in 1999. It netted the GPS an unprecedented 17 new seats, more than any other party had ever gained, giving it 28 in all.

The gains made the GPS the fourth largest party in the National Council, the lower house, raising questions about the make-up of government. Then the new Green Liberal party (GLP) also increased its share of the vote by 3.2%, winning 9 extra seats as a result and taking its tally to 16. All told this meant that ecologically based parties attracted over a fifth of the electorate and won a similar proportion of seats.

Table: Results of the 2019 Swiss general election (National Council)

Source: Federal Statistical Office

At the same time, there were signs of a Green breakthrough in the elections for the upper house, the Council of States. Clearly the elections have made the Green parties a major force in Swiss politics in a way they have never been before. While the National Council remains very much a multi-party affair, the balance of power has decisively shifted as 58 of the 200 seats have changed hands. However, overall the National Council still remains a diversified body with 11 parties represented.

Nonetheless, virtually all the main stream parties lost out in this wave. The previously dominant radical right Swiss people’s Party (SVP) remains the largest party despite losing an unprecedented 12 seats, reflecting a fall of 3.8% of the vote. Two other far-right populist parties also lost support, the Ticino League (LT) seeing its representation halved, and the Geneva Citizens’ Movement (MCG) losing its only seat. However, the Christian fundamentalist EDU/UDF party won back its seat in Bern.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats (SP) recorded their worst result since PR was introduced in 1919, falling to 16.8%. Even so they remained the second largest party, with the FDP also losing four seats and failing to oust the Social Democrats from this position as they had hoped. However, the far-left improved its position, the communist Swiss Party of Labour holding on to its seat in Neuchâtel and the far-left alliance winning back one in Geneva.

The Christian Democrats (CVP) more or less held their own although, being demoted by the GPS, they were left a little exposed. They lost two seats but their percentages held up better than they had expected. The other main loser was the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP), a splinter party from the SVP, which lost four of its seven seats. This means it can no longer form a group on its own, threatening its access to funding. These changes mean that the new chamber has nearly a third more women than in 2015, now accounting for 42% of seats.

Some cantons like the Valais saw their first ever woman elected. And the average age of MPs fell slightly, to 49 from 50.3. In the Council of States, where most elections are held on a two round system as in France, the Greens also started to make gains, although only 24 of the 46 seats were filled on 20 October. The GPS thus showed themselves more adept at doing this than the SVP had been. This further reinforced the Green wave which had not been expected during what had been a long drawn out but relatively unexciting campaign. Polls had consistently shown only modest gains for the Greens, to the extent that Claude Longchamp, the Swiss John Curtice, proclaimed himself lost for words at the scale of the Green gains. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, turnout, which was expected to go up, actually fell to 45.1%, the lowest since 2003. This was despite much spending and increased use of new media.

The background

The run up to this surprising election day had been marked by dissatisfaction with the old parliament, marked swings in cantonal elections and suggestions of an exciting campaign, with real expectations of change. To begin with, many Swiss, of differing political persuasions, tended to denigrate the parliament which emerged from the 2015 elections. Rather than being radically to the right, it was marked by increasing tripolarisation between far-right, centre-right and left. Yet, for many progressives it could claim few legislative achievements and needed to be replaced. They tended to talk of it in much the same way that Brexiteers talked of the 2017 House of Commons.

However, this is to overlook the way that, in fact, the Swiss Parliament re-asserted itself in unusual ways during the last four years. It did this notably in the way it agreed an interpretation of the 9 February 2014 ‘Stop Mass Migration’ initiative, turning it from a threat to relations with the EU into a harmless encouragement to employing locally based workers. And it was able to reduce the SVP’s fury over this ‘betrayal’ to impotence. It also proved innovative in the way it combined tax reform and increased social welfare spending.

Cantonal election results over the following years suggested that the public was largely in sympathy with such centrist moves. Thus, there was a clear pattern of desertion from the SVP and victories for the Social Democrats, Greens, Liberal Greens and, especially, the FDP. Indeed, the latter developed very real momentum after 2015. Nonetheless, the SVP remained the largest party in cantonal parliaments. All parties therefore looked forward to the new election, hoping it would consolidate gains, or, for the SVP, reverse the swing away from populism.

Indeed, the election hung over the country from the autumn of 2018 onward. This often led politicians to hold back from actions which might worry electors and threaten their chances. Hopes for electoral change also showed itself in increased enthusiasm for entering parliament. The number of candidates increased by 22.8% to a record of 4,660. The number of female candidates among them also rose, to about 40%, and they gained more prominence both in submitting lists and in campaigning.

The number of lists put forward by parties and for which electors could vote also rose by 21%. At the same time, more money than ever was spent on the campaign and more use was made of social media than in the past. In particular, the highly influential ‘Operation Libero’ movement, which had become an increasingly effective force in direct democracy, encouraging a more open Switzerland, started to become active in the campaign. All this increased engagement was widely expected to take turnout over 50% for the first time in decades.

Most parties confirmed their stances in the spring but did not really start campaigning until late summer, and after the 14 June Women’s Strike for more equality. This made a real impact. After a poster showing other parties and, potentially, the EU as worms trying to ruin the Swiss apple caused very angry headlines, the SVP held back from further provocative actions. While traditional methods of campaigning continued, increasing use was made of new media. The government led the way with a special website and most parties used targeted messaging and social media.

The Christian Democrats got into hot water when linking rival candidates’ websites to their own negative comments. In fact, the parties were often censured for their breaches of data protection rules in their campaigning. All this speeded up in September, but then, as the election neared, coverage seemed rather to tail off. This reflected the relatively low expectations amongst the parties. The two Green parties for instance, both only hoped for four more seats each. And, while the FDP and the Social Democrats hoped for more, the former to become the second party in the land and the latter to reverse the conservative dominance in the National Council, these changes were never likely to materialise.

Conversely, both the Christian Democrats and the BDP, like the People’s Party, had very defensive aims. The first two wanted to hold on to their present positions while the last wanted to limit its likely losses. Driving all this were three main issues. Two were domestic: the costs of health insurance and the development of the pension system, and the third, someway behind, was concern about climate change. Migration did not really figure because applications were falling and the economy was going too well to become an issue.

Nonetheless, the SVP campaigned with the slogan ‘Free and Secure’. Most strikingly, there was virtually no discussion of Europe, despite this being the country’s key foreign policy question, with a growing impasse over the acceptance of a framework agreement to structure the country’s many deals with the Union. In fact, the subject was too toxic and unsettling to be risked. Even the announcement of Boris Johnson’s revised deal with Brussels did not really undo this reticence.

The anatomy of the Green breakthrough

Clearly things turned out very differently from what had been expected, even if Europe was not involved in this. Not only did the two green parties exceed both their hopes and general expectations, but they did this across the country. So there was no Röstigraben division between the two main language divisions as has often been the case in the past. Even Italian speaking Ticino was affected. In other words, it was a truly national swing. Moreover, the two parties won seats from a variety of mainstream parties, and not only from the far-right, making it a major challenge to the established governing parties.

The Green Party won 7 new seats in French speaking Switzerland, two in each of Geneva and Vaud and one in each of Fribourg, Neuchâtel and Valais, where there had never before been a Green MP. Four of these gains came from the SVP and other right-wing formations, two from the Christian Democrats and one from the Social Democrats. The Ticino seat came from the Lega, the local populist force. One of the two Council of States seats initially won by the party came in Neuchâtel where 35-year-old Céline Vara – a lawyer and Vice President of the national party – surprisingly just managed to oust the well-established Social Democrats. As in the past, the Green Liberals did much less well in the Suisse romande, picking up seats only in Vaud and Geneva, partially at the expense of the FDP.

Nonetheless, this gave them a firmer foothold than before. In German speaking cantons, the two parties won 16 seats between them, centred on Zurich where each won three new seats. The gains for the GPS were in Solothurn, Thurgau and Zug. And, in St. Gallen, both Green parties won an extra seat. The largest number of these gains were seized from the SVP. Two of its five losses came in Zurich. However, the Social Democrats also lost three, two in Zurich, while the FDP and the BDP both lost two. The Christian Democrats lost only one, again in Zurich. It also succeeded in taking a seat from the SVP in conservative Uri.

Federal Palace of Switzerland, Credit: Niamor83 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the upper house, the GPS won another remarkable victory in Glarus where Mathias Zopfi, another 35-year-old and a deputy mayor, squeezed past the sitting SVP member. As a result, the SVP was wounded in its heartland. Along with its St. Gallen gain, the Green Liberals also won seats in Bern, Basel City and, remarkably, in Lucerne. The highest proportion of these were taken from the SVP. Overall, this means that they now have a total of 16 seats, fourteen in German speaking areas. Their stronghold is Zurich where the party was founded and where they outnumber the GPS six to five.

The latter now have 28 seats, slightly behind the FDP. Ten of these are in the Suisse romande with 4 in Vaud alone, only one less than their representation in Zurich. They are clearly a powerful national movement appealing to all three main linguistic communities. As well as muscling into the top four, the GPS (and its parallel party) inflicted heavy defeats on the mainstream forces. The SVP lost more seats than it had won in some of its glory years. And, rather than gaining a regional boost from having secured the election of French speaking Guy Parmelin in 2016, it lost seats in the Suisse romande including some of its old leaders. Its message that ecological politics was a gauchiste ploy to attack middleclass wealth fell on deaf ears. Hence its post 2015 problems weren’t ended.

Equally, the GPS seriously weakened its presumed allies in the Social Democrats. At the same time the Green Liberals made inroads into the FDP’s strength. The FDP thus lost support both to them, as well as to the SVP because of the adoption of a new green policy earlier in 2019. In other words, whether or not the green surge was deliberately directed against the governing parties, the results certainly made it much harder for them to resist the successful green forces. In other words, the results constitute a severe challenge to existing politics.

Interestingly, neither the GPS nor the GLP lost a single seat in the elections, which is unusual. Nor did the ideological differences between them seem to disturb electors. So why did this surge come about? It was not simply the appeal of ecological issues like climate change, even though 40% of respondents to the Sumitomo exit poll said this was their main concern. In fact, to an extent it was a side effect of the low turnout. This seems to have fallen because neither the SVP or the FDP succeeded in mobilising their full core support.

The former found its traditional themes of asylum, Europe and immigration had less resonance than in previous years while its failure to secure the full implementation of its 9 February 2014 initiative disappointed many of its supporters, discouraging them from voting. The FDP’s new environmental policy was too much for some and too little for others, so people either did not turn out or leaked away to parties more sympathetic to their feelings about green issues. Something of the same may have happened amongst Social Democrats where union members did not espouse the new agenda. While this was happening, the environmentalists were able to tap into a new electorate: younger, urban, more educated, relatively prosperous and essentially the winners from globalisation.

Thus, one in five under-25s voted green, compared to only 17.5 who voted for the SVP and 13% for the Social Democrats. The latter also failed to mobilise its own youth support, many of whom must have been attracted by the more radical message of the GPS and, in German speaking cantons, of the Green Liberals. This was more leftist in German speaking areas than it was in French speaking ones. The effects of Libero support may also have not been unhelpful, though this should not be overstated. Whatever the reasons, it made for an emphatic breakthrough, despite the policy differences between the two formations.

Other factors were of course at work. Thus, it may also be that the CVP’s ability to avoid their feared decline below 10% owed something to a sympathy vote which, as in 1987, developed when it seemed as though a smaller party, then, the SVP, might be forced out of government. This caused pluralistically minded voters to switch camp to help ensure their staying in office, blocking the expected Green surge in what was being over optimistically called the ‘Hoffnungswahl’. Nonetheless, overall these generational and social changes helped to bring about the unexpectedly green results in 2019.

Future developments?

Striking though the shift was, it is far from clear where it will take Switzerland. In a way the country finds itself in a situation somewhat like that of the UK on 24 June 2016. A decision in principle seems to have been taken, but there is much uncertainty as to how the principle is to be interpreted and by whom. This is partly because of the way the Swiss political system works and partly because policy details have yet to be decided, let alone debated. Indeed, on climate change, the President of the GPS sees the way forward as calling a massive conference to allow experts to advise them on what should be done.

Uncertainty today comes, firstly, from the fact that, although 20 October was the given date for the election, this is not the end of the story. As the Council of States uses a two round election system, there are still a number of seats to be decided, thirteen in fact now, after one or two cantons saw challengers to retire allowing the best placed candidate to walk over. These second rounds, which will be held on all four Sundays in November, are important because they could mitigate the results of 20 October. Often, they see the Christian Democrats and FDP doing better than in the lower house, and this could affect assessments and possibly government formation. Equally, further gains by environmentalists would strengthen their claims for change. The makeup of the party structure could also be affected by the formation of formal groups, something which has to be done by 30 October.

Secondly, uncertainty reflects the way that governments emerge in Switzerland. This is very different from what happens in most democracies. The seven ministers are elected by Parliament as a whole. This is due to take place on 4 December when the new chambers first meet. Normally the practice is that the ministers represent the four biggest parties. Presently, the SVP, the SP and the FDP all have two and the CVP one. The elections have called this into question. Indeed, almost as soon as the results were in, there was talk of the Greens, perhaps in alliance with the Green Liberals, being entitled to a seat given that they together account for 21% of the electorate and the FDP only attracted the support of 15% and have only one more MP than the GPS now does.

This suggests that the Foreign Minister, Ignazio Cassis, the most recent selection, would be the target, although this would threaten the linguistic balance. Moreover, a change would also conflict with the convention that ministers usually serve until they themselves choose to stand down. Change would there expose the government to the regular flow of political tides, removing its stable and above party status. This has led many commentators to conclude that there will not be any change this time around. However, while securing a seat would bring the Greens into the consensual mainstream, staying out could encourage oppositional tendencies and threaten the existing tripolar structure.

A third element of uncertainty is that whatever happens on 4 December will have a large influence both on party structures and policy evolution. Expectations before the election talked of there being a red/green majority, but the three parties fell well short of the numbers needed and will need allies to get things through, assuming the government brings them in. At present it is very difficult to see where these will come from. Hence the shape of future party alignments is hard to discern. But it could be that tripolarism will be left behind. Policy would also change because it is normally the government which introduces legislation and changes in its makeup could affect its legislative proposals.

Environmental legislation will begin with the revision of the CO2 bill, but climate, energy and transport are all possible subjects for action. The cost implications of these could well split the two victorious green parties. Questions have also been asked as to whether the rise of the Greens will shift presently stymied debate on the framework agreement with the EU in a more EU friendly stance. After all, the GPS is a strongly pro-European party. How the initial election results are followed through remains to be seen.

In other words, not everything was decided on 20 October. The results strengthened green forces far beyond the expectations of either commentators or the parties themselves. Yet this has not, yet, changed government and may not do so. Questions remain to be answered. Striking though they were, the implications of the elections have yet to be worked out.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Clive H. Church – University of Kent
Clive H. Church is Emeritus Professor of European Studies at the University of Kent.

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