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Swiss Election Upsets Traditional Stability

Switzerland was shocked out of its apathy on Sunday when, for the first time in decades, the election of a new parliament resulted in a turn-around of the status quo and a triumph of the right-wing People's Party.


Christoph Blocher, head of the Swiss People's Party, was the clear winner on Sunday's election.

A smashing victory for the anti-foreigner, isolationist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in Sunday’s general elections threatens to shake up the "magic formula" which has served as the foundation of Switzerland’s unique four party, coalition-style government for 44 years. For the first time in decades the vote for a new parliament resulted in a political upset, turning a hitherto minor player into the strongest party in recent Swiss history.

According to the Swiss news agency SDA on Monday, the right-wing People’s Party, which had campaigned hard on issues of immigration, asylum and security, took the biggest chunk of the vote with 27.7 percent and 55 seats in the 200-member parliament. That marks an increase of over five percent and 11 seats compared to the last parliamentary election in 1999. The party headed by billionaire Zurich industrialist Christoph Blocher is now clearly Switzerland’s strongest party, and that has many people worrying that the pristine Alpine state is leaning far right of center.

But the SVP wasn’t the only winner in Sunday’s election. The Social Democrats (SP) gained two more seats for a total of 53 representatives in parliament, and the Greens upped their seats to 13 representatives and became the largest party outside the four-party government coalition.

The wins for the Social Democrats and Greens clearly came at a loss for the center-right business-minded Radicals (FDP), which lost seven seats, and the Christian Democratic Party (CVP), which lost eight seats -- an all-time low for both mainstream parties and a shock to the some 4.7 million voters who had expected to see the election reinstate the traditionally strong parties.

Mixing up the magic formula

A day after the election, attention has now switched to whether or not the traditional four party government based on an equal division of cabinet seats among the SP, the FDP and the CVP will hold up on December 10, when parliament must reelect the ministers that comprise the Swiss Federal Council. Up to now the main parties have each held two ministries and the previously smaller SVP made do with just one. Called the "magic formula," this brand of coalition government has served as the backbone of Swiss politics since 1959.

But now the status quo looks like it may be overturned. On Monday SVP leader Blocher called for a second cabinet seat for his party to better reflect the changed make-up of parliament. SVP politicians have also made it clear that if the other coalition parties refuse, it will pull out of the government and create its own opposition -- an unprecedented move in Switzerland, where governmental decision making is based on consensus among all the parties.

Most observers, however, believe the system of consensus will survive even with some shuffling among the parties. "The governmental system is anchored in the constitution. The collegial system won’t change, although its exact composition might," political scientist Hanspeter Kriesi of Zurich University told AFP news agency.

Christiane Brunner, president of the Social Democrats, said it was simply a question of "reviewing the allocation of the five seats between the conservative parties," while the SP -- the second largest party after elections -- retained its two posts. A new mix-up of the magic formula would most likely result in the Christian Democrat Party -- the smallest party -- having to forfeit a cabinet post, a move the party’s president Philipp Stahelin understandably resists.

No immediate change

Despite the clear victory for the SVP in parliament, some analysts say the party may not gain a second cabinet position in December. "I don’t think the outcome of this election will lead to a dramatic overhaul of the magic formula," political analysts Hans Hirter told Swiss Radio International on Sunday. "But maybe in two or three years time, when one of the Christian Democrat ministers resigns, we will see the true importance of the election for the People’s Party’s bid for a second government seat."

In addition, analysts say greater inclusion of the SVP in the Federal Council could actually defuse the party’s more extremist positions. In order to get elected to the government, Blocher will have to play the collegial game, otherwise he will not get very far, said Kriesi. On the other hand, focusing on consensus will go against his grain as a party leader, because it will force him to tone down the SVP’s right-wing tendencies, Kriesi explained, pointing to neighboring Austria where Jörg Haider’s populist Freedom Party entered government and was required to soften some of its strident tone.

Others who worry that the SVP’s wins in Sunday’s election could lead to right-leaning parliamentary rulings on immigration and even more isolationist policies seek solace in the fact that the Alpine republic has a strong tradition of direct democracy, whereby power rests not with parliament but with the people. A referendum, for instance, can be called on any political issue as long as campaigners manage to collect 100,000 signatures. This considerably limits the parties’ ability to push through their own agenda.

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