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CENTRISM IS GAINING STRENGTH IN SWITZERLAND

BUSINESS MIR, Business mir #21 - 2012-02 MAIL PRINT 
In Fall, 2011 Switzerland held parliamentary and federal government elections. Despite some surprises, the principal winner was Switzerland’s notorious stability.
Outside observers will not be struck by the difference between the 2011 official photo of the governing Swiss Federal Cabinet and its 2012 version. Aside from the different backdrop selected by Switzerland’s new president, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, at first glance the team appears much unchanged. But a closer look reveals that former Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has been replaced by a new figure – 39-year-old Alain Berset. However, his rise to power is more due to Micheline Calmy-Rey’s resignation than the direct result of any election. In Switzerland, the 7 Federal Councillors who constitute the governing body are elected by Parliament every four years in mid-December, following the preceding parliamentary election. Although any Swiss citizen can theoretically be a ministerial candidate regardless of party affiliation, in practice Parliament traditionally favours a stable system and re-elects ministers already in office. Therefore ever since Switzerland’s current federal system was founded in 1848, only 4 ministers have not been re-elected to ministerial posts by the Federal Assembly! The composition of the Federal Council is fascinating in terms of its stability as from 1959 to 2003, the Government was consistently comprised of 2 ministers from the Socialist Party, 2 Christian Democrats (CVP/PDC, centre right), 2 ministers from the Radical Party (FDP/PLR, renamed the Radical Liberal Party in 2009) and 1 minister from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC, far right).
But in recent years a trend has been developing in Switzerland, as is the case in neighbouring countries. The polarisation of political forces and rising strength of populist parties is increasingly discernible and this trend is obviously reflected in the balance of the Federal Council. In 2003, Christoph Blocher became the second minister to be drawn from the ranks of the populist Swiss People’s Party, which has been the leading party in Switzerland since 2007. During this period of Euro-zone crisis and given the rising price of the Swiss franc – which has contributed to the growth of populist sentiment – the popularity of radical parties was expected to increase at the October parliamentary elections. It was forecast that the leader of the pack would be the Swiss People’s Party, which won 28.9% of the 2007 vote and – as usual – spared no expense on pre-election campaigning, covering the entire country with posters bearing the slogan “The Swiss vote for SVP”. However, the results of the October 23 parliamentary elections, in which 49.2% of Swiss citizens participated (slightly more than four years ago), clearly refuted this widespread expectation.
The predicted reinforcement of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC) – known for its relentless struggle against the European Union and immigration – did not occur. In contrast, the extreme right went from 28.9% to to 26.8% of the vote at elections to the National Council (lower chamber, comprising 200 seats). Although SVP is still the leading party in Switzerland with 55 National Council members (7 seats less than the previous term), it is far from the 30% that the party had been hoping to achieve. SVP can take comfort in the fact that part of the other “traditional” Swiss parties also suffered losses. The Radical Liberal Party (FDP/PLR), one of the oldest right-wing parties in Switzerland, has lost four National Council mandates (it now has 31 mandates) representing 14.7% of the vote. This is the lowest figure in the history of the Radical Liberal Party, which controlled 22.2% of the vote in 1999. The Radical Liberal Party party is the result of a 2009 Liberal and Radical party fusion. The Radical Party is noted for having played a key role in organising modern Switzerland (1848). The Radicals held every single Federal Council seat until 1892. The gradual dwindling of FDP votes in recent years shows that it is increasingly difficult to convince voters that the party’s proposals are in keeping with modern times.
As for the Christian Democratic Party (CVP/PDC, centre right), it also suffered losses with a total 13% of the vote (down 1.5%), which represents 28 seats in the National Council. It is widely believed that the CVP suffered losses due to the rise of small, new centre right wing parties, which draw voters with similar leanings. The second biggest party is the Swiss Social Democratic Party (SP/PS), which obtained 18.1% of the votes, just 1.4% less than in the 2007. Although the Social Democrats won three seats in the National Council (up 3 seats to a total of 46) due to complicated political alliance regulations regarding the distribution of parliamentary seats, they still expected better results given the present deteriorating conditions for Swiss businesses and growing economic concerns among a population which generally favours left wing parties (or populist parties such as SVP). But the biggest surprise of the elections was the Ecology Party’s unexpected loss of 7 seats (the Greens now hold just 13 seats), a return to its 2003 results of 8% (down 1.8%). This gloomy result is surprising in that the Fukushima disaster caused Switzerland to ban nuclear energy by 2034, placing environmental issues in the forefront of the political agenda. The Ecology Party will have to seriously examine revising its political position and attracting new voters as well as recouping those they lost, stated Federal Councillor Antonio Hodgers, a re-elected Ecology Party member from Geneva Canton. The Ecology Party’s recent electoral failure is also partly due to the unexpected success of the Liberal Greens (GLP/PVL), who gained 5.3% of the votes (up 3.9%), gaining 9 seats for a total of 12 in the National Council.
The Liberal Green Party is an Ecological Party spin-off which was formed in 2004 as a rallying point for voters who fall to the centre right. The Liberal Greens intend to play the role of king-maker by joining forces with the other new centrist party, the Bourgeois Democratic Party (BDP/PBD), which took its place in Parliament for the first time in these elections with 5.2% of the vote (9 seats). The BDP came out of a split within the SVP, after Parliament elected SVP Deputy Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf rather than Minister Christoph Blocher. In spite of her party’s request that she step down, Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf chose to accept the post. She was hence excluded from the SVP along with her fellow SVP supporters from Grisons, Ms. Widmer- Sclumpf’s home canton. SVP Party members joined with the excluded faction to form the BDP and took part of the more moderate SVP members from all over Switzerland with them, These disillusioned SVP members had found it increasingly difficult to identify with the SVP’s tough political rhetoric. The BDP and GLP jointly hold 21 seats in the new parliament, which is a significantly sufficient number to influence the parliamentary majority. Although one can assume that the voices of these new parties will favour the centrists, other political alliances and agreements are not to be entirely excluded over the next 4 years. Which way Switzerland's political compass points at any given time will depend on this new centrist faction's actions.
Nevertheless, the newly elected parliament chose to favour stability on December 14 by re-electing all the ministers aside from Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who decided to resign after nine years in office. She was replaced by a 39-year-old native of Fribourg, Alain Berset, who holds a doctorate in Economic Sciences and is a member of the Socialist Party. Berset was made responsible for the Ministry of the Interior, replacing Didier Burkhalter, who became Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Department of Justice and Police is still headed by Simonetta Sommaruga (Socialist Party), the Department of Economics by Johann Schneider-Ammann (Radical Liberal Party) and the Department of Defense, Civil Protection and Sports by Ueli Maurer (Swiss People’s Party). Evelyne Widmer-Schlumpf (Bourgeois-Democratic party) retained her post at of the Department of Finance as did Doris Leuthard (Christian Democratic Party), who heads the Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communication.
If the parliamentary election results – and particularly the federal government – can be defined as “a triumph of stability”, the stability of the system in its present form could be threatened by a referendum that originated with the Swiss People’s Party. The draft bill proposes that the Swiss government not be elected by the Parliament but by the Swiss people. The referendum will be held no earlier than 2014 but should it pass, Switzerland would become a de facto direct democracy (as opposed to the current semi-direct system where the government doesn't answer to the people, but to Parliament). Indeed, many political experts fear that government elections by popular vote would entail a radical change in the rules of the political election game – and could result in demagogic campaigning and all the systemic flaws that go with it. Even if the complex system the bill calls for guarantees 2 seats to representatives from the French and Italian speaking minorities, the risk of Switzerland’s traditional political system collapsing - a system which has always sought compromises and ways of smoothing out the angles – is still high. But in 2012, the Swiss will have to vote on a number of other important issues, such as introducing a minimum 6 week vacation (instead of the current 4 week holiday period). The bill on extending holidays is supported by the left and a proposal to have all “significant” treaty agreement signatures approved by the Swiss people through mandatory referendum is also due to be addressed in 2012. But here, as is the case with other pressing issues, one can bank on the Swiss voters’ traditional distrust of sudden changes in the status quo.
BUSINESS MIR, Business mir #21 - 2012-02  MAIL PRINT 
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