Alphorn players perform in Nendaz, Switzerland. (Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)

Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, we are pleased to present the following pre-election report on the October Swiss parliamentary elections from political scientists Marlène Gerber and Sean Mueller, of the University of Berne, Switzerland.

On Sunday, Switzerland votes on its federal parliament. The members of both chambers — 200 National Councillors and 46 Councillors of States — are directly elected, with the 26 Swiss cantons (or provinces) forming the districts. Seats in the National Council are distributed to the cantons based on their population size, while in the Council of States each full canton gets two seats and the six half-cantons get one each. Here are six things to look out for.

1. Will this be a farewell to the new center?

Four years ago, two new center parties made — by Swiss standards — sensational gains. However, both the GLP, the Green-Liberal Party that combines liberalism with a pro-environment stance, and the BDP, the Citizen-Democrats that had split off from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in 2008, are now projected to lose votes.

If the traditional center-party, the Christian Democrats (CVP), is also unable to halt its 50-year long decline (see figure below), the parties at either extreme will profit. This would confirm the trend of the last 20 years, broken only in 2011, and bring in more polarization, especially as regards the formation of the government, which will be elected by both chambers in December 2015.


2. Let’s play chess!

The Swiss electoral system is “unusually complex,” according to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Its free list system gives each voter as many votes as there are seats in his or her district (between one and 35). A citizen can vote for members of different parties or lists (panachage); erase names on printed lists; give two votes to a single candidate (cumulation) — and can do all of this at the same time.

If a voter chooses fewer candidates than the district allows, his or her unchosen spots are given to the party or list chosen, if any; otherwise they are lost. Furthermore, parties are allowed to ally with other parties in “combined lists” (apparentments) and also to create “sub-lists,” e.g. for young or female candidates only.

After the election, seats are first distributed proportionally to the party (including sub-lists), using the Hagenbach-Bischoff (D’Hondt) formula for proportional representation, or to the combined list if the party has one or more allies (and, within the apparentment, in proportion to a party’s vote share). Afterward, the seats are allocated to the candidates of that party with the most votes.

In the 20 cantons that vote according to the proportional representation system, the total number of lists is 422 — a new record. Apparentments increase a small party’s chance of receiving a seat if done thoughtfully. However, a small party is likely to lose when it allies with a larger party (for details see Bochsler 2010).

While the Left had long profited the most from apparentments, the GLP, allying with all kinds of small (and bigger) cantonal parties from the left to the right, was the apparentment winner in 2011 (+6 seats). On the other hand, the apparentment with the GLP (and the BDP and the Evangelical People’s Party EVP) helped the Christian-Democrats to win over a seat occupied by the Greens in Basel, although the Green candidate had gathered almost 2.5 times more votes.

The elections will show whether the GLP can hold on to its success or whether its rainbow-color alliances may finally result in an image problem. In any case, the emergence of new center parties has increased the possibilities for forming apparentments, which for many parties has become less a question of ideological proximity than of strategic action. The figure below shows the 2015 list apparentments.


The chess game of apparentments in the 2015 Swiss federal elections
Note: Cell entries correspond to the acronyms of the cantons. Parties are sorted from left to right. A party’s current number of seats in the National Council is indicated in brackets. Not included are apparentments with minor parties (e.g. the Pirates’ Party, Ecopop movement, Alternative List. Source: Federal Office for Statistics, 13 October 2015.)

3. New ways to mobilize the majority

Switzerland has one of the lowest turnout rates in Europe. In 2011, barely 49 percent of the voting population participated (Figure 3). And even this marked a slight increase when compared with the previous decade.


Participation in national elections, voters as a percentage of the total electorate, 1975–2011
Source: Swiss Federal Office for Statistics, 13 October 2015

No big surprise then that mobilization became the word of this electoral campaign. Thus, instead of trying to convince adherents of other parties, parties have tried to better exploit their own latent voter potential.

For that purpose, they resorted to unconventional means. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) created their own music video “Welcome to SVP” that even made it into the top 10 during one week. The Socialists (SP) conducted an electoral campaign à la Obama and tried to bring sympathizers to the polls via a large-scale telephone campaign.

More generally, in order to attract young voters, easyvote, an initiative of the umbrella organization of youth parliaments, aimed at making the elections more accessible. It conducted 200 interviews with young politicians at schools and cooperated with smartvote, an online voting advice application that matches the issue positions of voters and candidates.

Moreover, easyvoters were given information on the style of the candidates. Thus we learn that while globetrotters and rebels have quite a broad choice, the emo and the hip-hopper are fairly underrepresented in politics. However, one week before the election, the postal ballots in the cities of Bern, Zurich and Basel did not indicate a further rise in turnout.

4. Sauglattismus trumps substance

Another frequently used word in this campaign is “Sauglattismus,” a Swiss-German neologism describing the frenetic attempt to be hilarious. While the SVP sings and dances, the CVP built crosswalks in the color of their party to allude to core issues. However, the fact that they got fined for this — by their very own city of Berne councilor Reto Nause — received more attention than their actual policy proposals.

More generally, content is glaringly missing, unlike in 2011, when practically every party advanced its own popular initiative to amend the Federal Constitution. However, even this change in strategy may be comprehensible, given that almost all of those initiatives eventually failed — either at the ballot (SP, GLP, CVP) or already at the signature collection stage (FDP).

The big exception was the “initiative against mass immigration” by the SVP that was accepted by 50.3 percent in February 2014. While the SVP has continued to promote immigration restrictions, the other parties have not positioned themselves prominently, although — or maybe because — it is still far from clear whether and how the initiative can be implemented in line with the E.U.-Swiss Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons.

5. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the best pollster of them all?

Competition is taking place not just among politicians, parties and PR firms, but also among political scientists. Rarely before have so many scholars been involved in survey interpretations, vote predictions and seat projections. Even the Monkey Cage has found its Swiss equivalent in www.defacto.expert, launched just a few weeks before the elections.

In essence, however, the predictive race is on between Claude Longchamps’s gfs.bern and Michael Herrmann’s sotomo. While both expect the center-right (SVP and FDP) to win and the center-left to lose, they disagree on whether the Socialists increase in strength (gfs.bern: +0.5 percent) or fall prey to the mechanics of the electoral system (sotomo: -3 seats).

Theirs is also a contest between methodologies: computer based telephone surveys (N: 2’013) vs. online-only opt-ins (N: ca. 40’000) with canton-by-canton modelling, respectively. Cantonal projections are also opted for by the left-wing newspaper WOZ, which equally predicts the center-left to lose (-10 seats) and the center-right to gain (+5 seats), but also foretells more fragmentation through wins for the smaller far-left (+3 seats) and right-wing protest parties (+2 seats).

6. So what?

A cynic would conclude that, anyway, none of what we’ve just told you really matters. The Swiss parliament is strong on paper but weak in practice. Its fragmentation keeps it from speaking with one voice. Interest groups are strong and many MPs semi-professionals. Important policy decisions are taken through nationwide referenda, of which there are about nine every year. Implementation takes place at the sub-national level.

And the government, while elected by parliament, is composed of seven members from all the major parties and cannot be revoked during four years.

Nevertheless, since Sunday’s winners are able to set the tone for the next four years, the upcoming elections nevertheless matter. After all, the 2011 elections and the presence of the new center had shifted the Swiss parliament to the left, thereby increasing the scope for the Left to form alliances, while of course still losing many battles — in fact, exactly half.

Furthermore, as the strongest party in Switzerland, the SVP keeps demanding a second seat in the government. So if the BDP loses and the SVP wins, the former’s only government member, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, is likely to stand down (or, more technically, not to run again), preparing the ground for a shift to the right also in the executive.

Marlène Gerber is deputy director of the Année Politique Suisse at the University of Berne. Her research interests include deliberation, direct democracy and political communication. Sean Mueller is lecturer in political science at the University of Berne. He specializes in Swiss and comparative politics, notably federalism and direct democracy.