The end of Konkordanz? What happened in Swiss politics this week…

December 15th, 2011

On Wednesday the Swiss Parliament held elections for the Bundesrat – the Executive Council, I guess, for lack of a more precise translation. The Parliament is directly elected by the people, but the Executive Council is not: it is elected by the members of the Parliament. It’s shown live on Swiss TV and it’s possibly even more boring than watching C-Span because you don’t see any actual voting. For each of the seven seats, ballot papers are distributed; members mark their ballots in private; the ballots are collected and counted out of sight; and then the results are announced by the head of the Parliament. So really on TV all you see is a bunch of people milling about and you hear the murmurings of three different languages and the TV commentators try to fill the time between results. Each of the seven seats is voted on individually and to win the seat a candidate must achieve an absolute majority of the votes cast; in the absence of an absolute majority, a second round of balloting is held, then a third, and so on until a candidate gains a majority. Yesterday only one of the seven votes went to a second ballot – the seventh seat, which incidentally was the only seat that had been vacated through retirement. The other six members of the Executive Council were all incumbents (bisherige) and they were all reelected with a single round ballot of balloting.

There’s a lot of party jockeying and coordination in the weeks leading up to the Bundesratwahlen – party leaders need to corral the troops, to make sure for example all the FDP members are going to vote for the FDP candidate but they also make alliances with one another – if the SP members all stick with the BDP candidate, the BDP will in turn deliver votes for the SP. The actual voting for the council members should be orderly and largely unsurprising, as everything has been worked out in advance and because there is an unwritten rule about which parties should end up with seats in the Executive Council.

Everything is supposed to be run according to two principles: the “magic formula” and Konkordanz. The “magic formula” decrees that each of the four leading parties in Switzerland (Switzerland has a multiparty system and representatives of no fewer than ten parties sit in the Parliament) holds at least one seat in the seven member Executive Council; typically, the three largest parties hold two seats and the fourth party, one. Konkordanz – agreement, collegiality, accordance – is the linch pin of Swiss politics. Everybody agrees, gets along, sticks to their word, works together, achieves compromise. There is nothing more Swiss than a good compromise and there is nothing Swiss politicians like to speak of more than Konkordanz. And there is nothing lower than violating the spirit of Konkordanz. If you want to blast your opponents in Swiss politics, say they violated Konkordanz.

The Swiss People’s Party – the SVP – is the largest party in Switzerland (you can peek at the most recent election results here) but they currently hold only one seat in the Executive Council as a result of an internal party split that saw Bundesratin Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf split from the SVP and help form the BDP. It’s a bit inside baseball, but basically the SVP is becoming increasingly rightist, nationalist, and strident; what used to be a solid conservative party has become increasingly extreme to the point where many of its own members were no longer comfortable with the party’s positions and its Zurich-based leadership. Think Tea Party v. normal conservative Republican. So in 2008 some members split and formed the BDP and one of these members was Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, and when she left the SVP she took her Executive Council seat with her.* It was quite the earthquake in Swiss politics, and the SVP has been under-represented in the Executive Council ever since.

Yesterday, Widmer-Schlumpf was up for reelection to the Executive Council; her candidacy was the second to be voted on and she was reelected with a single round of balloting. The SVP then announced that they would fight vigorously for every remaining seat (even the FDP seat, and the FDP might be the only semi-ally the SVP had left at then point) and oh boy did all heck quietly move about after that. (Hell does not break loose in Swiss politics, by US standards, but by Swiss standards yesterday was quite the political show-down.) At the end of the day the SVP still only had one seat in the Executive Council, they had turned on any potential ally they might have had, their leadership was shown to be ineffective, and this morning most political commentators agree that they were the big losers of the day yesterday.

Them, and Konkordanz. Say what you will about the conservative, nationalistic politics of the SVP, they’ve held the most seats in the Swiss Parliament since 1999 and in the last two elections for the Executive Council they’ve ended up with one seat, the same number as the BDP with only 5% of the vote nationwide. It’s a situation that can’t hold. I’m no fan of the Swiss People’s Party, but if Switzerland is going to have its “magic formula” and its Konkordanz, then the Parliament is going to have to hold its nose and find an SVP member they can vote for. (Admittedly the party leadership does not make this easy – they demanded a second seat in the council while removing possibly the most likable candidate from consideration). And if not, if members of the Parliament can no longer be corralled and parties can no longer come to agreements that will hold – well, maybe it’s time to stop talking about Konkordanz as a guiding principle of Swiss politics.

To add to the bitter blow for the SVP, the Executive Council then elected Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf President. The Swiss presidency is largely ceremonial – because it’s awkward for a visiting head of state to be greeted by a body of seven, you know? – and the president holds no more sway in the Executive Council than the next member of the Council, her vote is not weighted, she holds no special powers. The title is ceremonial and rotates steadily among the members of the Executive Council but nonetheless: a woman representing a party that gained about 5% of the vote nation-wide holds the presidency. The SVP must be loving that.

What does the SVP do now? Go into opposition? Revamp their national leadership? Can they hold on to their voters? How many of the rank and file members of the Parliament, tired of the shenanigans, will jump ship to the BDP? Swiss politics – which basically prides itself on being staid, orderly, and predictable – is getting more interesting all the time.

* I’m shortening the story here: Widmer-Schlumpf, then with the SVP, was elected by the members of the Parliament against the will of the SVP. They had put up as their candidate Christoph Blocher, who in 2008 was unacceptable to many members of the Parliament. In keeping with the magic formula the parliament did go ahead and elect an SVP member to the cabinet, just not the one the SVP leadership wanted. Political infighting, bickering and party-splitting ensued; Widmer-Schlumpf was essentially forced out of the SVP; the BDP was founded; and Swiss politics has been a bit more interesting ever since.