Can Greta’s generation make a mark on Swiss politics?

Senior political analyst Claude Longchamp explains what the expected outcome of the October 20 parliamentary elections could mean for the main parties.

Protests over climate change have recently energised Swiss youth, who have taken to the streets numerous times over the past several months. But increased youth involvement in Swiss politics has been underway for a while.

This content was published on February 21, 2019 - 15:00

The young climate activists rallied behind Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who staged protests outside Swedish parliament for more than six months and has become a global phenomenon.

Such political participation by the young generation is most welcome. The liberal think-tank Avenir SuisseExternal link sounded alarm bells some time ago with a report entitled, “Are we about to become a gerontocracy?” Currently, the average voter in Switzerland is 57 years old, the think-tank reports; he or she will be 60 on average in 2030.

An ageing society with ageing voters inevitably has an impact on political decisions.

While political participation is primarily defined by education and gender in other parts of the world, it is a unique and inglorious Swiss characteristic that age plays a large role in politics.

Here, the under-35 generation is busy with self-discovery, finding a job and starting a family. It’s only afterwards that he or she becomes engaged in politics, until political interest finally and only begins to wane between age 70 and 80, often because of increasing health problems.

Social media creates movements

But things are changing, thanks in part to social media channels which are an important factor in the new wave of youth politicisation.

Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have become networks offering a boundless hodgepodge of content. They go beyond the limits of the individual by making moving moments and events visible almost everywhere at once. They allow the use of emotions, youthful attitudes towards life and generation-specific language to set the agenda.

Global events such as the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States or the #metoo movement against sexual harassment caused waves and politicised young people, their friends and families.

Journalists and traditional media are no longer needed to relay information. The same holds true for conventional forms of political participation. They are things of the past.

Platforms like easyvoteExternal link (in German, French and Italian) also help make politics more accessible and relatable to young people, with targeted explanations of vote topics and societal issues.

Youth wings unite

The focal point of Switzerland’s new politically active generation was the planned reform of the old-age pension system. The youth wings of most of the main parties came out against the proposal approved by parliament.

Their joint effort helped bring down the reform in a nationwide vote last year. As a result, the youth chapters became players to be reckoned with in political fights about age-related issues.

The new role for the youth wings can also benefit the mainstream political parties. They can recruit new politicians, motivate a new generation and promote party positions, plus gather additional votes in elections.

Nowadays, these youth wings are established organisations in Swiss politics.

Well instructed and familiar with the system, most of them are in a position to launch nationwide people’s initiatives. They are also able to collect plenty of signatures within required amount of time for referendums, making them able to challenge parliamentary decisions.

Youth party wings are still waiting to win their first such vote.

Nevertheless, they are already making their mark on the political agenda. It certainly helps to have annual budgets of around CHF500,000 ($500,000), a figure reached through contributions by the party headquarters, membership fees and modest financial support from the state.

Election prospects

Will the politicised Swiss youth have a major impact on the outcome of October’s parliamentary elections?

Despite an expected increase in the number of young candidates and a higher turnout at the polls, I’m sceptical. Their chances of winning a seat remain very limited, for the main reason that the electoral system gives big parties an edge over smaller groups.

Youth wings often supply additional votes by pooling their own lists with those of their main party.

But a more effective way of promoting young talent is to put many young candidates in top slots on the main party lists.

Another option is the broad introduction of the so-called dual-member proportional representationExternal link. This system, in force in seven of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, helps smaller parties which don’t stand a chance in small constituencies under the traditional electoral system.

Under such a scheme, it’s estimated that up to 10% of all seats could go to smaller groups even if the number of votes were unchanged. One of the main winners would no doubt be the youth chapters of political parties.

And Greta’s generation would make sure that its voice is heard and its presence is visible in Swiss parliament.

About the author

Claude Longchamp is a senior political expert and one of Switzerland's most experienced and highly-regarded political scientists and analysts. 

He founded the polling and research institute GfS BernExternal link, which he headed until his retirement. Longchamp has analysed and commented on votes and elections on SRF public Swiss television for 30 years.

Longchamp also runs two German-language blogs: ZoonpoliticonExternal link on political issues and Stadtwanderer External linkwith contributions about historical topics. 

This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by Contributors, including outside authors frequently share their views. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of

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