What makes Swiss tick in cabinet elections


The ability to win supporters and forge alliances across party lines could be decisive in next month's cabinet election, says political scientist Daniel Schwarz.

This content was published on August 7, 2009 - 13:04

In an interview with, the expert from Bern University and the independent election platform Smartvote explains how the Swiss tick when it comes to replacing a member of the government and why the role of the media remains limited.

There is a vacancy in the multi-party cabinet since the Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin announced his resignation after more than 11 years in the government.

The centre-right Radicals are maintaining their claim to two seats in the seven-strong cabinet against claims by rival parties, mainly the centre-right Christian Democrats.

The parties' nomination procedure is expected to get into full swing next week ahead of the vote on September 16 when the two chambers of parliament will meet in a joint session. Why is there so much public interest in the replacement of one cabinet member?

Daniel Schwarz: It is primarily the result of the Swiss political system. The cabinet is made up of seven equal members. Changing one minister therefore means replacing a seventh part of a prime minister, so to say.

Other factors also play a part. It is a government with a comparatively small number of ministers and members on average stay in office for between eight and 12 years.

Cabinet members enjoy a great deal of autonomy with their own portfolios. Some would describe the ministries as little fiefdoms where cabinet colleagues only have a say in strategic issues.

The head of a ministry decides the details and is free to organise his department as he or she likes. Normally the cabinet members respect this rule and in turn benefit from it. What limits the powers of a minister?

D.S.: There is no impeachment procedure, and parliament can only refuse to re-elect a cabinet member every four years.

This has occurred twice over the past eight years, but is not representative of the 161-year history of modern-day Switzerland. To what extent can a political party force one of its representatives in the cabinet to resign?

D.S.: There is not much a party can do. At most it could deny an incumbent minister political backing, and put forward another candidate.

But this is very risky because such a move would inevitably create divisions within the party and because a controversial minister probably has a number of supporters among the rank and file. What are the golden rules a candidate for the cabinet has to observe?

D.S.: It is often said that it is a mistake to be the first to come out in a campaign and grab the headlines. But I am not sure this holds true. There is, for instance, the example of Pascal Couchepin – the interior minister who is stepping down now. He scored an outright victory in 1998. He was virtually uncontested from the beginning.

What is crucial for a successful campaign is something else. A candidate has to be able to convince a sufficient number of supporters in parliament.

Given that no single political party has a majority in the two chambers, that means winning over parties other than just your own, or at least individual members of these parties. Apart from party allegiance, the cultural or geographic origin of a candidate, or gender and age - what other factors come into play?

D.S.: At the end of the day it probably matters less how old a candidate is. Some would probably like to see another woman in the cabinet now and language is a issue, although it is fairly certain that Couchepin will not be succeeded by somebody of German-language mother tongue.

The political values represented by a candidate could be the decisive element in the forthcoming election: somebody who stands for more liberal ideas, or somebody more conservative. How important are the media in the run-up to a cabinet election?

D.S.: The media tend to make cabinet elections a contest seemingly to be decided by the general public. Yet it is up to parliament to choose and vote.

For somebody who is not very well known by parliamentarians, or is only known in their own region, media coverage can be an asset. As long as a candidate stays clear of scandals of any kind of course.

It is hardly possible for a candidate to use the media to promote new ideas which run counter to his or her previous political positions. Your credibility is at stake and fellow parliamentarians would easily see through this. Several candidates of the Radical Party have entered the race to defend their seat. Other parties are still to decide how or whether they will mount a challenge. Who holds the better cards?

D.S.: The Radicals appeared to be caught by surprise when the Christian Democratic Party announced it would try to win back a second cabinet seat. By now they have recovered from the initial shock.

Critics might say the Radicals were not ready to face the challenge. But with the nomination procedure continuing in the cantonal chapters, the Radicals have regained confidence. Are the Christian Democrats on the defensive?

D.S.: They managed to stir up the political waters a bit at the beginning. But the basis for their claims appears now to be less solid.

The Christian Democrats still feel stung by the loss of their second cabinet seat in 2003 when the Radicals helped pave the way for a second member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party in government. Your guess for September 16?

D.S.: The Christian Democrats are unlikely to win enough votes among other parties for their contender, in my opinion.

As for the Radical Party – if their list is whittled down to two candidates – my guess is the more moderate of the two will come out top.

I would not be surprised if a widely accepted candidate from the French-speaking region emerged as the winner.

Key facts

Cabinet ministers were elected for a four-year term, which ends in December 2011.
The successor to Pascal Couchepin is due to be chosen by both chambers of parliament on September 16.
Couchepin who holds the interior ministry post is to step down at the end of October after more than 11 years in the cabinet.

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In brief

The multi-party cabinet consists of seven ministers with equal powers. The president is a largely ceremonial post rotated on an annual basis.

Decisions are taken collectively and on the basis of consensus, but it is not a coalition government.

For nearly 50 years the party-political make-up remained unchanged between the four main groups.

In 2003, the rightwing Swiss People's Party won a second seat at the expense of the centre-right Christian Democrats.

The centre-right Radicals were the founding party of modern-day Switzerland in 1848. They currently hold two seats.

The centre-left Social Democrats have two representatives while the centre-right Christian Democrats and the Conservative Democrats each have one minister.

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