Expat guide to the Federal Council elections in Switzerland
On December 13, the political tension is expected to reach boiling point as the new parliament elects the President and Federal Council - the executive branch of Switzerland. Here’s what the Swiss Federal Council elections will look like, and whether anything is expected to change.
What is the Swiss Federal Council and why does it matter?
Back in October, Swiss citizens went to the polls to select who they wanted to be represented by in the National Council (lower house) and Council of States (upper house). With the elections concluded and parliament now sworn in, the last piece of electoral business to be done is the election of the Swiss Federal Council on December 13.
Operating similarly to the executive branch in the United States, the Federal Cabinet in Germany and the Cabinet and Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, the seven members of the Swiss Federal Council act as the country’s executive branch and government. Each is given the responsibility of running a federal department (from justice to health to foreign affairs), with the symbolic position of “president” rotating between them every year.
The Federal Council is responsible for dictating Swiss policy at home and abroad, and attempting to fulfil the wishes of both parliament, and referendum results. No Swiss political party holds a majority in the Federal Council, with each councillor expected to work with each other and “govern in consensus.” This is why federal councillors sometimes find themselves in opposition to their own party on certain issues.
How is the Federal Council in Switzerland elected?
Currently, the Federal Council is beholden to the so-called “Magic Formula.” The electoral formula sees two seats given to the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), Social Democratic Party (SP) and FDP. The Liberals, while one is given to what is now called the Centre Party. This arrangement has been in place since 2015.
Each Federal Council seat is elected by a joint session of parliament called the Federal Assembly. Councillors are elected / re-elected in order of seniority, with the incumbent (provided they want the job) elected via an absolute majority.
After the first round of voting, if a winner is not declared candidates must secure at least 10 votes. The candidate with the fewest votes is then eliminated in every subsequent round until an absolute majority is achieved. Vacant seats are elected via the same method.
How often do Federal Councillors not get elected?
Traditionally speaking, incumbent candidates are always re-elected provided they want to run. In fact, the last sitting Federal Councillor to not be re-elected was the SVP politician Christoph Blocher, who, after a tumultuous time in office lost his re-election bid by 10 votes to Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf in 2007.
Once elected, Federal Councillors serve a four-year term provided they do not resign. There is no possibility of a no-confidence vote and term limits are not applied, so most Federal Councillors tend to serve for 10 to 12 years.
Changes expected at the Swiss Federal Council election
So what is expected to change in the Swiss Federal Council on December 13, 2023? The certain thing that will happen this time around will be the replacement of Health Minister and current President Alain Berset, as he is resigning. His SP seat is not expected to be challenged, so it is almost certain to be filled by a candidate from his party.
Of the six candidates that put themselves forward for the role, the SP whittled them down to just two. They are Beat Jans, President of the Executive Council of Basel-Stadt, and Jon Pult, National Councillor for Graubünden. At the time of writing, Jans is expected to win as he has more experience governing.
Will the Swiss Magic Formula go up in a puff of smoke?
Alongside this, many analysts have been knocking their heads together to see whether the “Magic Formula” is still fit for purpose. Indeed, a report from SRF noted that in terms of votes won at the last election, all parties on the council are overrepresented, especially the SP and FDP.
There is also no representation on the council for the Green and Green Liberal parties, which won a combined 17,33 percent of the vote in 2023 - more than both the FDP and the Centre. This has led Green Party National Councillor Gerhard Andrey to announce that he would be running as a candidate for the council.
At the same time, SRF political correspondent Urs Leuthard speculated that Centre Party President Gerhard Pfister could also run for the Federal Council after his party won more seats in the National Council than the FDP and is still the largest party in the Council of States. In both the Greens and Centre’s case, Leuthard predicted that the FDP seat held by Ignazio Cassis would be the main target.
The Swiss Federal Council elections in 2023
Leuthard concluded that unlike previous years the Federal Council election is still “open” to change. One of the few certainties will be the election of the President - in 2024, it will be Viola Amherd of Canton Valais.