Tag Archives: Switzerland

Switzerland – The difficulties of speaking with one voice: intra-executive coordination in a collegial presidency

Our blog only rarely covers Switzerland – in fact, it has been only been covered in four of our over 1000 blog posts to date (three of which were cross-country comparisons). This is largely due to the fact that the Swiss presidency differs considerably from the other presidencies discussed here. Rather than the incumbent of a unipersonal office, the Swiss president is the chairperson ‘Federal Council’ – a seven-person collegial executive elected for a fixed four-year term in a joint session of the houses of parliament – and rotates annually among the members of the council.[1] As first among equals, Swiss presidents are effectively the country’s highest representative; yet, they have no authority over their fellow councillors. Given that the Federal Council is a voluntary all-party/grand coalition (its party composition is determined by a largely stable ‘magic formula’) and acts ‘in corpore’ (as one body), it is often presented as a unitary actor. However, a range of issues and discussion have highlighted a very interesting phenomenon in this respect – the lack of coordination between different councillors and the difficulties of the collegial presidency to speak with one voice.

Official portrait of the Swiss Federal Council © Schweizerische Bundeskanzlei 2019

Newly elected Federal Council president Ueli Maurer irritated national and audiences at the World Economic Forum in Davos two weeks ago when he remarked that the Swiss government had “long since dealt with the Khashoggi case. We have agreed to resume the financial dialogue and to normalise relations [with Saudi Arabia].” This assessment was however not shared by his fellow councillors, and particularly those leading the foreign relations and trade departments were quick to stress that relations had all but normalised (and that trade restrictions remain in place). At the same time, the finance department, led by Maurer himself, is continuing its ‘finance dialogue’ with Saudia Arabia. Thus, Maurer’s remarks not only highlight a lack of coordination within departments, but also between the council and its highest representative.

A similar pattern emerged with regard to the new framework treaty between Switzerland and the European Union. The results of five-year long negotiations had been presented in December 2018, eliciting contradictory comments from federal councillors – while Ingazio Cassis (heading the foreign affairs department) praised the draft agreement, his colleagues criticised the deal and the Federal Council failed to present a common position (this had already been an issue in early 2018 during before the last phase of negotiations). Eventually, Maurer called for re-negotiations, despite clear signals from the EU commission that there would be no leeway to renegotiate the current agreement.

Last, parliamentarians have increasingly voiced their discontent with the lack of coordination among councillors and their government departments in important areas. Most recently, this was illustrated the lack of a common political and economic strategy on investments from and engagement with China – although promised over ten years ago, policy differs greatly among the departments which hold various responsibilities in this regard.

These examples show the problems of coordination in a collegial presidency in which there is only a first among equals, yet none above (primus inter pares vs primus supra pares). Nevertheless, none of these is (yet) sufficient to change the council’s modus operandi. Nevertheless, the new EU treaty may force councillors to adopt a more cooperative approach – both among each other as well as between the Federal Council and parliament. To date, such questions as well as that of political leadership of Federal Councillors has yet received little scholarly attention. Although the Swiss presidency is relatively unique (the closest comparable example are the Captains Regent in San Marino), the above examples demand further investigation and could well mirror patterns of intra-executive conflict in other regime types.


[1] Although the president is formally elected by parliament, the order of rotation is strictly based on the length of time that councillors served on the Federal Council.

Switzerland – Indirect presidential elections with a twist

Yesterday, Johann Schneider-Ammann, from the center-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) was elected as the new Federal president. Having been elected as vice-president the year before, his election was no surprise with most attention attached to the election of the remaining six Federal Councillors.

The Swiss National Council | photo via wikimedia commons

The Swiss Federal President differs from the other presidents discussed on this blog. Rather than being the head of state or head of the executive, s/he is merely chairperson of the seven-person ‘Federal Council’ which acts collectively as both head of state and head of government. While the Federal President is is the highest representative of the Swiss state and is ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) with regards to other members of the Federal Council s/he has no authority over the other Federal Councillors. Although elected by parliament, neither the president nor the collegiate government of the Swiss Federation is responsible to or dependent on the legislature. The Federal President, too, differs in the mode of election from other presidents. S/he is elected only for a one-year term in a joint session of both houses of parliament from among the members of the Federal Council and (usually) after having been elected to serve as vice-president in the previous year. Re-election is possible, yet not for consecutive terms; the constitution also forbids the election of a serving president as next year’s vice-president.

For these reasons, we do not usually include Switzerland or the Swiss presidency in the coverage of this blog. The election also tends to receive very little international coverage (as frequently lamented by Swiss journalists). Nevertheless, looking at election over time can prove to be an interesting and insightful exercise. Although the winner of the election is more or less predetermined, there is significant variation among the individual results pointing at political dynamics beneath the surface of the data and illustrating the need for further study and investigation. On the occasion of yesterday’s election, I therefore take a look back at the presidential elections in Switzerland during the last century based on a new data set of the votes obtained by Swiss Federal Presidents between 1919 and 2015.

% of votes obtained by Swiss Federal Presidents, 1920-2016 (c) Presidential Power

The Federal President is elected by a joint of session of both parliamentary chambers – the National Council (proportional representation; currently 200 members) and the Council of States (two representative per state, 1 per former ‘half-state’; currently 46 members) in the first winter session of the parliament (which now coincides with the first session after each parliamentary election). To be elected, a candidate must obtain the absolute majority of valid votes – the latter is often up to 25% lower than the number of National Council members as invalid votes have become established means of expressing discontent over the election of a predestined candidate (and some do not even pick up a ballot paper). The vast majority of presidents in the last 100 years has nevertheless managed to obtain the votes of over 60% of the members of parliament. The record for the highest number of votes obtained during the last 100 years is jointly held by Hans-Peter Tschudi and Willi Ritschard who both obtained 213 out of 246 votes (85.59%) – both when running for their respective second time. Given that nine others presidents obtained at least 80% of votes of total members, this record is however not as striking as its opposite. The record for lowest number of votes obtained is held by Micheline Calmy-Rey who received just 106 votes for her second candidacy and was only elected due to fact that only 223 ballots (out of 246) were collected by members of parliament and only 198 valid votes were cast.

% change in support by number of repeated candidacies

Out of the 96 elections held between 1919 and 2015, 32 were contested by previous office holders – 23 presidents then served a second term, two presidents were re-elected three times thus serving four terms. Factoring in his first term as president in 1915 respectively, Giuseppe Motta even served five terms. The re-election is thereby conditioned by the continued membership in the Federal Council where presidency and vice-presidency are decided (albeit informally) by the seniority principle. On average, former president can generally sustain their support base in parliament (former office holders only lose 1.45% votes per election attempt), yet there are great variations. While Calma-Rey already achieved only 147/246 votes (59.8%) for her first candidacy as federal president (and thus the lowest share of support among members of parliament for a president since 1935), she lost 16.7% in her second candidacy compared to these numbers (a record loss). Five other presidents, too, lost a two-digit percentage, but as their previous results ranged between 70-80%, the loss was less dramatic. On the other hand, presidents with meagre results in the first election could boast their result in the second attempt. For instance, Pascal Couchepin was first elected president with 166/246 votes in 2003 but received an above-average result of 197/246 votes in 2008.

Results for vice-presidency and presidency compared

The result presidential candidates obtained as vice-president (usually) a year before their election as president would appear to be a better predictor of the support for (all) presidential candidates. A first look at the scatter plot above seems to confirm this, yet the correlation coefficient is merely R2=0.2661 thus showing only a weak correlation. Overall, the variation between results appears to be even greater than between the results of repeated candidacies. While the average change is a mere 2.31%, gains and losses of up to 20% are not unusual.

Rather than being entirely ‘pre-determined’, the electoral results for Swiss Federal Presidents can thus be an important indicator of the relationship between legislature and executive and the evaluation of the leadership capabilities (or past leadership) of individual Federal Councillors. To return to the case of Micheline Calmy-Rey, both of her comparatively poor results can be explained by criticism of her activities as head of the foreign policy department which she headed during her membership in the Federal Council 2003-2011. Similar explanations can be found for other examples of poor or excellent performance in Swiss presidential election, illustrating that there is variation worth studying even in a consociational democracy with a multi-party collegiate executive such as Switzerland which is due to its uniqueness often avoided by political scientists. Even comparison with other countries are possible (e.g. with the number of votes received by government candidates in indirect presidential elections). Last, this brief analysis has of course not included a number of other interesting factors, such as the timing of parliamentary elections, the parliamentary power balance and party membership of Federal Presidents, or the votes received by Federal Councillors before being put forward as (vice-)president. If you have further ideas on how to find and explain patterns in these election results, please feel free to leave these in the comments below.