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Switzerland’s ‘magic formula’ for democratic stability

By   /  October 15, 2015  /  Comments Off on Switzerland’s ‘magic formula’ for democratic stability

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GENEVA: The Swiss, who will vote Sunday in parliamentary elections, enjoy one of the world’s most stable democracies, based on direct votes, decentralisation and a unique power-sharing agreement dubbed “the magic formula”.

Famous for its direct democratic system, which allows citizens to voice their opinions on a range of issues in plebiscites every three months, Switzerland also has its own particular parliamentary and government system based on consensus and aimed at maintaining stability.

“Unlike in other countries, no one party can win power and push through their agenda,” Andreas Ladner, a political scientist at Lausanne University, told AFP, noting that “power in Switzerland is always shared.”

Here is an overview of the Swiss system.


Some five million Swiss citizens are eligible to vote Sunday to elect 246 parliamentarians to fill the upper and lower chambers of parliament, which stand on an equal footing in decision-making.

The lower house, or National Council, has 200 seats to be distributed according to a system ensuring proportional representation from the country’s 26 cantons, according to their population size.

Forty-six seats are also up for grabs, with two handed to each of the large cantons and one for each of half-cantons, generally according to a majority system.

Low voter participation

Swiss voters, almost all of whom vote in advance through the mail or online, can thus mix and match the candidate lists of their choice.

Less than half of eligible voters will likely cast their ballots on Sunday — voter participation in Swiss legislative elections has not surpassed 50% since 1975.

Parliament composition

Eleven political parties currently hold seats in parliament.

At the last election in October 2011, the right-wing, populist, anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party (SVP) snatched 26.6% of the vote (54 seats in the National Council), the Socialist Party (SP) won 18.7% (46 seats), the centre-right Liberals (FDP) won 15.1% (30 seats), and the centre-right Christian Democrats (CVP) won 12.3% (28 seats).


Once the new parliament is in place, it will in December elect a new Federal Council, or government.

The government counts seven posts traditionally shared among the major parties from right to left under a tacit decades-old agreement, and generally remains unaffected by power-balance shifts in parliament.

This so-called “magic formula” allowed the government to maintain an identical party-level composition for 40 years, although it has shifted somewhat since 2003, when the SVP demanded two seats to reflect its status as the biggest party.

Disputed seat

It lost that second seat after Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf was in 2007 excluded from the party and created a new party, the small Conservative Democrats.

The battle for her seat is considered a major issue in the elections.

The Swiss government, which has no prime minister, is regarded as a college of equals. Ministers take turns serving one-year terms as president — a largely ceremonial post currently held by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga.

When electing the government, lawmakers have a constitutional obligation to take account of the country’s linguistic balance in their choice of ministers between the German-speaking majority and the French- and Italian-speaking minorities.

Direct democracy

Citizens also have unusually strong legislative powers in between elections. They vote several times a year in referendums at national, regional and municipal levels under the country’s system of direct democracy.

Any initiative to modify the constitution that gathers 100,000 signatures is put to a popular vote, while 50,000 signatures are enough to call a referendum opposing a law voted by parliament.

Voter participation tends to be far higher in the popular votes than in the parliamentary elections.

Decentralised system

In Switzerland, decisions are made at a national level regarding foreign policy, national defence, monetary issues and customs.

But a large degree of policy-making is also devolved to the 26 cantonal governments and assemblies, as well as to municipalities.

Each canton has its policies for education, religion, and police matters.

The cantons share decision-making with Bern on taxes, the judiciary, economy and social benefits. — AFP



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  • Published: 2 years ago on October 15, 2015
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  • Last Modified: October 15, 2015 @ 5:13 am
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