Swiss Elections

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For our weekly editorial by UACES, the University Association for Contemporary European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome Adrian Favero, from the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. Adrian, you’re inviting us to take a look beyond the borders of the EU, at the forthcoming Swiss federal elections.


That’s right, on Sunday 22 October 2023, Swiss voters elect a new parliament. They will choose the 200 members of the National Council, the lower chamber of the Swiss Parliament, as well as 46 members of the upper chamber, called “the Council of States”. MPs will serve from 2023 to 2027.


Why is this election relevant for Switzerland’s European neighbours?

Because the 2023 elections will show whether the 2019 “green wave” can be sustained or whether we see a shift towards the right.

Four years ago, roughly 5.3 million voters in Switzerland were summoned to the polls. About 45% of them cast ballots, a turnout that was slightly lower than in previous years. As the polls had predicted, the major parties lost votes and the two green parties – the “Greens” (GPS) and the “Green Liberals” (GLP) – gained seats. The Greens almost doubled their votes, surging to a 13.2% share, and gaining 17 seats in the National Council. This was an unprecedented increase in representation for any single party. The Green Liberal Party also exceeded expected results, with a gain of 3.2% and nine more seats. Both parties benefited from their “competence issue ownership”.


What do you understand by this concept?

“Competence Issue Ownership” describes a situation in which some parties are perceived by the public as being clearly the most qualified or competent in a specific area. With more awareness and salient debates about climate change, this is what happened to the green parties in Switzerland.

In 2023, however, we see a different situation.

This year’s polls indicate that the tables may turn. Most current surveys and forecasts confirm that the right-wing populist “SVP” will win seats back from the Greens. Unlike in 2019, climate change does not dominate the political agenda anymore.


Have the Swiss citizens turned their back on the fight against climate change?

No, climate change is still a pressing issue for many citizens, but the people’s concerns for the environment do no longer necessarily translate into votes for the Green Parties.

On the one hand, other topics, such as healthcare costs, pensions, and immigration, are widely felt and more tangible. At present, the SVP seems to win back votes with their focus on these issues. This is where they are felt to have “competence issue ownership”, which is expected to give them a significant boost.

And on the other hand, climate activists who glue themselves to roads cause massive disruptions and are often seen as a nuisance, which does not help their cause. As such, climate change is of course not off the table of concerns but has been temporarily replaced by more immediate threats which call for instant solutions, and the SVP benefits from this shift.


What about the rest of the political spectrum?

The two parties in the centre are expected to attract roughly the same number of votes and seats as in 2019. And on the left, the Social Democrats are also predicted to win votes, although to a rather moderate extent. It’s really the two green parties that are expected to lose significantly.

Importantly, however, national forecasts usually predict only the results for the National Council, which is elected based on a system of proportional representation. The second chamber, the “Council of States”, which is elected by majority vote in most cantons, is also important in determining the political direction of parliament but remains a cantonal issue. Currently, the Centre Faction (14 seats) and the Radical-Liberal Faction (12 seats) are the dominant forces in this body.


What else should we watch out for?

It will also be interesting to see whether the parliament will maintain the number of female representatives. Currently, the National Council has 84 women, a share of 42% of the chamber. This puts Switzerland second in Europe, behind Sweden, in women’s representation in the legislature.


An interview conducted by Laurence Aubron.