A man walks past an election campaign poster of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) at the main train station in Zurich, Oct. 12, 2015. The slogan reads, “Stay free! – Vote SVP.” (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, we are pleased to present the following post-election report on the October 2015 Swiss parliamentary elections from political scientists Marlène Gerber and Sean Mueller, of the University of Berne, Switzerland. Their pre-election report can be found here.

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On Sunday, Switzerland voted on its federal parliament. Here are five things we learned:

1. The center-right conquers the lower house of parliament

The winners of the 2015 parliamentary elections are the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), a national-conservative party of the right, and the Liberals (FDP), a party defending minimum state intervention. The SVP increases its vote share to 29.4 percent, an increase of 2.8 percent from the last such election in 2011.

While to Americans these numbers may seem small, in Switzerland they are significant. No Swiss party has ever had such a high proportion of votes since 1919, when proportionality was introduced. The FDP increased its share of the vote to 16.4 percent, going up 1.3 percent.

The complex Swiss electoral system has given the SVP an additional 11 seats in the National Council. It now has 65 seats, making it by far the largest party in the 200-member council. The FDP also raises its seat tally, but only by three seats, bringing its total to 33. All in all, the center-right now has 101 seats, including three held by two regionalist parties. This gives it an absolute majority. The figure below traces the national vote share of Swiss parties.


National party vote shares, in percent of total vote, 1919–2015
Source: Federal Office for Statistics, 20 October 2015

According to the post-election survey, there are two main reasons for the SVP’s success. First, the party managed to mobilize both first-time and usually apolitical voters.

Second, the SVP seems to have profited from the sudden increase in asylum seekers in Europe. As other surveys (gfs and sotomo) show, asylum seekers and immigration are considered to be Switzerland’s most urgent problems — followed by the country’s relations with the European Union. The SVP has taken a strong and conservative stance on all these issues since the early 1990s. This stands in contrast with 2011, when problems related to the environment, climate change and energy were the most salient (Fukushima effect).

[It’s confusing when the Swiss go to the polls. This is the background you need to understand their elections.]

2. It’s the money, stupid!

In the run-up to the elections, campaign financing was hotly debated. Switzerland is one of the last remaining European countries that does not require parties to disclose their campaign funding. This has been harshly criticized by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and the Greco (Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption). Transparency International and other NGOs (here and here) have long tried to change this. However, those efforts failed because of opposition from center and right parties, which presumably benefit from more donations from wealthier sources.

Most of that money goes into buying newspaper ads and posters at key locations, such as railway stations (the Swiss remain world champs for train travel). Political advertisement on TV and radio is forbidden, but the SVP was able to buy the first two pages of the most widely read Swiss newspaper, “20 minutes.”

To protest the lack of campaign finance disclosure and the vacuity of the campaign, a single student started a crowd-funding project to buy an ad of the same size in the same newspaper. Within 20 days, more than 11,000 supporters donated the equivalent of US$5 or more — enough to take out the protest ad at a cost of roughly US$130,000. And people continue to donate money as we write.

Finally, two weeks before the elections, the Socialists launched a constitutional initiative demanding full disclosure of the amount and origin of every party’s campaign funds. It seems likely that the Left will keep pressing for mandatory campaign finance disclosures.

Meanwhile, the Right’s greater amounts of funding have not helped the Left, judging from the number of ads and posters on each side of the spectrum.

3. A slightly more female parliament, with some caveats.

The National Council now includes more women than it ever has. Fully 32 percent of the 200 seats are now occupied by women; before the election, that figure was 31 percent.

But gender is balanced very differently in the different parties. While the right may have more money, the left has far more women. (No, there is not supposed to be a direct connection between the two, but for the salaries of Swiss women, see here.) While almost half the Greens’ and Socialists’ candidates are women, that’s true for only one-third of the Liberals, Christian-Democrats and the small center parties. In the triumphant, right-of-center SVP, that figure drops to one in five.

However, it’s not just the number of candidates that matters, but also their position on party lists, both before and after the elections (voters can cross-out, double up and mix-and-match candidates across party lists). In 2011, chances to win a seat were largely equal for men and women in all parties except the SVP. This means voters did not significantly change the gender composition of the list they eventually threw in the ballot box.

But in 2015, there are noticeable gender differences between those who stood and those who got elected in all parties except the SVP and CVP. In the Socialist Party, women are even overrepresented for the first time in history — or rather, since 1971, when female suffrage was introduced — and now hold 58.1 percent of the party’s seats, as you can see in the figure below.


Source: Federal Office for Statistics, 20 October 2015

4. A divided parliament

Switzerland has a two-chamber system, in which each house has equal powers. The upper chamber, called the Council of States, is meant to represent the 26 cantons (or provinces). As in the U.S. Senate, seats are distributed with no regard for a canton’s population. What’s more, different electoral systems apply, since cantons decide on their own rules for the Council.

Of the 46 Council seats, only 27 have been assigned so far. Of these 27, the FDP has eight, the CVP seven, the SP six and the SVP five. There is also one independent.

Of the 19 seats not yet decided in the first round of voting, it looks as if the SP and CVP are each likely to win six seats, the FDP four, the Greens two, and the conservative BDP (a split-off from the SVP) one. This would mean that Switzerland sees its parliament divided, with the center-right commanding an absolute majority in the lower chamber, the National Council, as you can see below, but the center and the left together dominating the Council of States, you can see further below.


Source: Federal Office for Statistics, 20 October 2015

Source: Federal Office for Statistics, 20 October 2015

 5. Toward a stalemate?

Where does all this leave Switzerland? Hanspeter Kriesi, in his most recent assessment of Swiss politics (gated), comes to the conclusion that polarization leads to stalemate. This will be most directly felt with regard to Swiss relations with the European Union, one of the most pressing national challenges.

Here’s the impasse. In 1999, Switzerland signed on to the free movement of persons in exchange for access to the European single market. In other words, Swiss companies can sell their products to 500 million Europeans — but Switzerland does not have to enter the Union politically. In exchange, E.U. citizens can come to Switzerland to look for work.

However, in February 2014 the Swiss people voted in favor of the SVP’s initiative “against mass immigration,” which demands the reintroduction of quotas on E.U. citizens who immigrate into Switzerland. In other words, there should be a maximum number — and free movement from the European Union will end.

As Kriesi explains, the SVP opposes E.U. integration primarily by arguing in favor of Swiss communitarianism against European universalism. They emphasize the need to protect Swiss sovereignty and direct democracy against “foreign judges” and E.U.-wide standardization decided “far away,” meaning in Brussels. The SVP’s strong electoral showing can thus be interpreted as voters reemphasizing their opposition to the European Union.

But whether that opposition is also to economic relations with the European Union is another question entirely. Moreover, the SVP alone does not have a majority in parliament. It will need to rely on other parties to legislate. And when it comes to bilateral agreements with the European Union, the SVP is unlikely to find agreeable playing partners within the ranks of the liberal FDP. And yet the people have spoken and their will needs to be implemented. How will this impasse be surmounted?

More immediately, both parliamentary chambers united will elect the new Swiss government on Dec. 9, 2015. Each of the seven executive seats is filled in turn; the candidate who reaches an absolute majority (50 percent+1 of all valid votes per round) is elected. If all members of Parliament show up and cast a valid vote, that absolute majority stands at 124 votes ((200+46)/2+1).

However, at the current predictions, even if the center-right gets the support of the three regionalists and one independent, it will only reach 119 votes — five short of the absolute majority. Thus they must find additional partners and make policy compromises.

The acting minister of the BDP, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, has not yet announced whether she will stand again, given her party lost both votes (-1.3 percent) and seats (-2). If she does, two factors might work in her favor: first, the established tradition of re-electing acting members of the government, and second, an ideological alliance (forged out of pure necessity) between the center parties BDP, GLP and CVP. At the same time, some members of the CVP have already come out in favor of a second SVP seat at the expense of the BDP.

So all that is clear is that nothing is clear.

Discussion about the party-political composition of the government has been ongoing for quite some time already. The question is: Who gets how many executive seats and on what basis, i.e. party strength in terms of overall vote share, seat share in one or both chambers together, or the strength of an ideological bloc (left, center, right)? The answer you get depends on who you ask.

In short, exciting times await us — at least by Swiss standards.

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.