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Why Swiss interest in cantonal elections is dwindling

Turnout has been thin in recent cantonal elections. © Keystone / Alessandro Della Valle

The turnout was dire in the last cantonal elections in Switzerland when only 32% of the electorate dragged themselves to the polling stations. This is an extremely low percentage, however, it’s not atypical. The Swiss spare no effort to cast their votes on bigger issues or ones close to home, but cantonal elections don't fire them up. What's the reason for this Swiss election fatigue?

This content was published on May 1, 2022 - 10:00
Claude Longchamp, political scientist, Bern

Is it really true that less than 32% of the electorate in canton Bern bothered to vote in the local government and parliament elections? This may seem troubling, but what’s even more concerning is that nobody seemed surprised by the low turnout. It was expected.

Half the electorate vote occasionally

Research indicates that the Swiss gave up casting their opinions about everything and everyone years ago. It would be impossible given the sheer number of elections and popular votes on a federal, cantonal and municipal level that are held every year. The Swiss no longer feel obliged to participate in political life. They see it as a right they can bring to bear when it suits them.

There are three types of voters: those who vote regularly; those who vote occasionally and those who never vote. In other words, three out of ten people always participate in popular votes while five vote occasionally and two never go to the polls. To state the obvious, people will vote if an issue strongly concerns them, interests them or they hold a strong opinion on it.

Depoliticisation vs Repoliticisation  

Looking back at how the turnout in popular votes and elections has developed over the past 30 years, we can identify two significant but opposing trends: depoliticisation and repoliticisation.

The big, overarching issues have repoliticised the electorate. In the 1980s, the Swiss voted on preserving the forests while their recent concern is the pandemic. Other popular votes that stirred the electorate were EU membership, migration and climate change.

All of these issues share a commonality which is that none of the traditional political parties gave them the attention they needed when they first came to the fore, which left them unsolved.  Once an issue made it to the polls, people took to protesting. The parties that had faced up to the new problems and dealt with them usually did well in elections, which was the case for the Swiss People’s Party and the Green Party.

In 1995, the national turnout hit rock bottom when only 42% of the population cast their votes in federal elections. Ten years later, this number stood at 49% . In contrast, the average turnout for all elections across Switzerland has seen a continuous rise since the 1980s - from around 40% to today’s average of 49%.

In exceptional times such as the pandemic, participation in national votes has been 57%, rivalling what it was after World War Two. But what about cantonal elections? No comparative figures were available until Sean Müller, assistant professor of Swiss and Comparative Federalism and Territorial Politics at Lausanne University researched it.

Bernese vote counters carry the sealed ballot boxes to be counted. © Keystone / Alessandro Della Valle

Müller’s data shows that the average turnout in cantonal votes is also affected by repoliticisation. As in federal elections, turnout has steadily increased since the 1980s when it was 35% and presently stands at 42%.

But when it comes to cantonal elections, it is a very different story. Forty years ago, the average turnout was 55%, today it is only around 40%. The trend continues downward which is a clear indication that the Swiss are indifferent to who governs and shapes their cantons.

'Glocalisation'

Recent surveys have shown that the Swiss no longer strongly identify with their cantons, which is due to their increased mobility and the fact that many Swiss commute to the bigger towns for work.

Something called “glocalisation” (a combination of globalisation and localisation) has popped up, particularly in central Switzerland. It means people are either interested in big global or national issues or what’s happening right at their doorsteps, in their neighbourhoods, but not in their cantons.

Everything in between global and local seems to have lost its importance which is especially true for cantonal politics. Many Swiss no longer believe that a canton alone can make a difference, which is partly why only loyal, regular voters participate in cantonal elections.

Higher turnout in mountains and regions

Remarkable as it is, in peripheral areas and in the mountains where people speak their own language, cantonal elections are still a significant part of people’s regional identities. This is reflected in high voter turnouts in local elections in cantons Ticino and Valais. But as in central Switzerland, canton Lucerne has seen a drop in turnout which can mainly be attributed to the election fatigue of the city dwellers of Lucerne.

Political science research shows turnouts are usually higher in closed, homogenous communities. In regions where these kinds of communities no longer exist, it mainly boils down to competition among political parties or media attention that motivate people to go to the polls.

But Switzerland’s consensus democracy is in the way of all this. Cantonal elections are often not very effective in setting the political course. They are merely democratic rituals or simply a confirmation of the right to vote. As a rule, incumbent politicians are re-elected, and vacant seats in parliament go to members of the incumbent parties. This does not make a catching media story or provide the general public with enough reasons to cast their votes.

The power of the media

The media, especially the mass media, are an important driving force in election campaigns. They often profile candidates and parties, which can be at least as powerful as the parties’ advertising campaigns. But due to the tough times local media outlets are experiencing, their budgets have been cut. Studies conducted by political and media scientists have shown that research, election supplements and critical journalism have become rarer. And once the media cuts its political reporting, public participation suffers, especially in elections.

Swiss Super Sunday?

One solution holds promise though. It is to coordinate cantonal elections and hold them nationwide on the same Sunday. Every four to five years, regional media could make a concerted effort on such a Super Sunday and parties could run their election campaigns across the region. Such coordinated cantonal elections would benefit people who work in canton A and live in canton B as they are affected by the election results of both cantons.

But let’s go back to our initial question. What happened in canton Bern during the last elections? The people of Bern cherish their democratic rights even though they are not showing up at the polls. They are an extreme example, but it is not a one-off.  It is happening elsewhere too.

The distribution of seats in the cantonal council hardly changed. “Everything remains the same” was the motto of the elections which could have been one of the reasons why the turnout was so low. The second reason could be that most journalists who cover canton Bern live in Zurich which dilutes their interest in Bern elections. The third reason could be that most residents of canton Bern live in the centre where mobility is high and regional attachment is low.

Taking all these facts into account, a turnout of 31-32% is actually not that bad.

Translated from German by Billi Bierling.

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