Election Resources on the Internet:
Federal Elections in Switzerland - Elections to the Nationalrat (National Council)
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera

Switzerland held a parliamentary election on Sunday, October 23, 2011. An overview of the proportional representation system used to choose members of the lower chamber of the Swiss Parliament - the Nationalrat or National Council - is presented here.

Federal- and cantonal-level results are available here (and also in CSV format) for the following National Council elections:

      October 23, 2011      
      October 21, 2007      
      October 19, 2003      
      October 24, 1999      
      October 22, 1995      
      October 20, 1991      
      October 18, 1987      
      October 23, 1983      
      October 21, 1979      
      October 26, 1975      
      October 31, 1971      

The election statistics presented in this space are derived from official reports issued by the Federal Chancellery. However, in order to present election results that reflect party strength in a meaningful manner, lists have been grouped according to classifications issued by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. Moreover, since Swiss voters may choose as many National Council candidates as there are constituency seats to be filled (see below), party vote totals for multi-member cantons were obtained by dividing list results by the total number of seats (with fractions rounded to obtain whole number figures), and the results were then aggregated for each political party. Finally, it should be noted that in multi-member constituencies the sum of votes cast for parties will not equal the total number of valid votes due to the fact that some electors vote for fewer candidates than the number of available seats.


General Aspects of the Electoral System

The Parliament of the Swiss Confederation, the Federal Assembly, is composed of a lower house, the Nationalrat or National Council, and an upper house, the Standerat or Council of States. Both houses, which have the same powers, are directly elected by universal adult suffrage.

The National Council is composed of 200 members elected for a four-year term of office in twenty-six constituencies - the cantons of Switzerland. National Council seats are allocated among the cantons in proportion to their population, although each canton is entitled to at least one seat. Since 1919, elections to the National Council have been carried out by proportional representation; nonetheless, seats in single-member cantons are filled by the plurality or first-past-the-post method, under which the candidate obtaining the largest number of votes is elected to office.

Electors in multi-member constituencies choose among lists of candidates. Two or more lists may form an electoral alliance, and two or more lists within an alliance may form an electoral sub-alliance. Political parties often present multiple, allied lists representing male and female sections, youth and senior citizen wings, or geographical areas within a canton; electors vote for as many candidates as there are seats to be filled. Electors may select a single list, and in this manner vote for every candidate on the list, but they may also drop a candidate from the list, and either put another candidate from the same list a second time, thus casting an additional vote for that candidate (a procedure known as cumulation), or write in the name of a candidate from another list (a practice known in French as panachage); in fact, electors may even compose their own lists by combining candidates from different lists. Meanwhile, electors in single-seat cantons cast a vote for only one candidate.

Seats in multi-member cantons are allocated by the Hagenbach-Bischoff method, in which an electoral quota is calculated by dividing the total number of valid votes by the number of seats to be allocated plus one. The number of votes polled by each list or electoral alliance is then divided by the electoral quota, and the result, disregarding fractions, is the initial number of mandates allocated to the list or combination of lists. Unfilled seats are then allocated in each canton according to the largest average method, also known as the d'Hondt rule. Seats won by electoral alliances are also apportioned among constituent lists and sub-alliances by the Hagenbach-Bischoff method and the d'Hondt rule, and the same procedure is repeated for the allocation of sub-alliance seats among constituent lists. Finally, list seats are assigned to the candidates with the largest vote totals within each list.

While the cumulative effect of the application of the d'Hondt rule over a substantial number of small-sized constituencies tends to favor the larger parties, smaller parties often overcome this limitation by forming electoral alliances and sub-alliances. Consequently, the overall distribution of National Council seats is fairly proportional to the parties' voting strength.

Elections to the Council of States, which are held at the same time as elections to the National Council (except in the cantons of Zug and Appenzell Innerrhoden), are carried out by majority vote, save for the canton of Jura, where the election takes place under proportional representation. Each canton is assigned two seats in the Council of States, except the cantons of Obwalden, Nidwalden, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden, which are assigned one seat each, for a total of 46 seats.

Unlike other European countries, Switzerland has a collegiate executive, the Federal Council, whose seven members are elected every four years in a plenary session of both houses of the Federal Assembly. The presidency of the Confederation rotates on a yearly basis among Federal Council members, each one of which heads a federal department.

The Political Parties

From 1959 to 2007, Switzerland was ruled by a grand coalition of the country's four major parties: the conservative Swiss People's Party/Democratic Center Union (SVP/UDC), the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (SPS/PSS), the centrist Radical Democratic Party (FDP/PRD) and the Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP/PDC). Under the so-called "magic formula," from 1959 to 2003 the Social Democrats, the Radical Democrats and the Christian Democrats had two seats each in the Federal Council, while the smaller Swiss People's Party had one. However, between 1991 and 2007 the Swiss People's Party more than doubled its share of the vote, while the Social Democrats, the Radical Democrats and the Christian Democrats experienced a noticeable decline. In the 2003 federal election, SVP/UDC ran on an anti-immigration, anti-European Union campaign and won the largest number of seats in the National Council. As a result, the party demanded and secured an additional seat in the Federal Council at the expense of CVP/PDC, which had slipped to fourth place in the 1999 general election.

SVP/UDC scored further gains in the 2007 federal election, and consolidated its position as Switzerland's largest single party. However, in December of that year, a joint session of the National Council and the Council of States unexpectedly failed to re-elect Swiss People's Party leader and Justice Minister Christoph Blocher to the Federal Council. Although the Federal Assembly chose Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf of SVP/UDC to replace the controversial Blocher, she was disowned by the party, which subsequently went into opposition. In 2008, both Widmer-Schlumpf and Defense Minister Samuel Schmid - until then the other SVP/UDC representative in the Federal Council - left the party to join the Conservative Democratic Party of Switzerland (BDP/PBD); the new party is a Swiss People's Party breakaway established by moderate SVP/UDC members after the party voted to ban Widmer-Schlumpf as well as its section in Graubünden canton, which had previously refused to expel Widmer-Schlumpf. However, Schmid stepped down from office the following November, and he was subsequently replaced by Ueli Maurer of SVP/UDC.

In addition to the five parties currently represented in the Federal Council, Switzerland has a number of smaller parties spanning the entire political spectrum. Since 1987 the environmentalist Green Party of Switzerland (GPS/PES) has been the largest party outside government, displacing the Independents' Alliance (LdU/AdI), which disappeared after the 1999 federal election. In recent years, the right-wing Swiss Democrats (SD/DS; previously National Action) and the Freedom Party of Switzerland (FPS/PSL; previously the Automobile Party) have lost ground to SVP/UDC - as has the Liberal Party of Switzerland (LPS/PLS), traditionally strong in the cantons of western Switzerland; in 2009 the latter merged with the Radical Democrats to form the Radical Liberal Party (FDP/PLR).

Other political parties represented in the National Council include the Federal Democratic Union (EDU/UDF) and the Ticino League (Lega) on the right; the Swiss Labour Party (PdA/PST), the Alternative List (FGA/AVF) and Solidarities (Sol.) on the left; the Evangelical People's Party (EVP/PEV); the Christian Social Party (CSP/PCS); and (since 2007) the Green Liberal Party (GLP/PVL).

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: December 7, 2011.