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Disclaimer: This article was written by a Swiss.
Around five million Swiss voters will head to the polls on Sunday for a general election that will see them pick 246 lawmakers who will eventually elect a government.
That government will have the difficult tasks of preserving Switzerland’s neutrality in a war-torn Europe; restoring confidence in the banking sector after the bailout of one of its largest institutions; fixing a damaged relationship with the European Union; and bringing health costs down.
Sounds boring? We’re here to change your mind with four reasons you should be interested.
It’s one more way to impress your Brussels friends
Switzerland is the EU’s fourth-largest trading partner — and there’s some bad blood between Bern and Brussels, which was left bewildered by the 2021 Swiss decision to exit negotiations on a long-awaited cooperation agreement.
But a quick look at domestic politics explains why: The right-wing SVP, the biggest party in the country, is profoundly Euroskeptic, while the center-right and socialist parties are worried about a deal with the EU that would threaten Swiss workers’ salaries, which are much higher than in the bloc.
For most Swiss voters, meanwhile, rocky EU-Swiss relations are not a priority: It’s only the seventh most important issue on voters’ minds in this election, far behind the cost of living, climate change and immigration — which isn’t unusual, according to Pascal Sciarini, professor of Swiss politics at the University of Geneva.
“The parties try to avoid talking about Europe, because they’re not sure whether it will benefit them,” Sciarini said. “From an electoral point of view, there’s no payoff.”
We all need something stable in our lives
Let’s face it: International crises have been piling up over the past few weeks and months, and everyone could use some stability — which is where Swiss politics come in.
Since 1959, all the major parties have been represented in the seven-minister government — the Federal Council — which is elected by members of parliament.
Its composition has remained the same for almost 50 years, with the Socialist Party, the centrist Christian Democrats (now The Center), and the center-right Liberals each having two seats, while the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) had one. The SVP was eventually granted a second seat in 2003, after it became the country’s biggest political force.
This consistency also comes from Switzerland’s (complex) political arrangements, in which the two parliamentary chambers each have a specific electoral system. While the 200-seat National Council is elected through proportional representation, candidates for the Council of States — the Swiss equivalent of the U.S. Senate — need to secure a majority to be elected in most regions, which favors centrist parties who are more likely to make alliances.
This is reflected in the polls. Although the SVP is expected to come out as the election’s big winner, with more than 27 percent of the vote, it is projected to win only six seats in the Council of States, which would be dominated by the Liberals and The Center.
The campaign posters will haunt you
In the polished world of Swiss politics, the SVP has made a habit of pushing the limits of political campaigning.
This year, it issued several posters using crimes reported by local media to call for stricter migration policies.
According to Sciarini, the Swiss professor, the far-right party learned its aggressive campaign tactics from the country’s referendums, which occur several times a year and where the SVP regularly proposes laws to tighten immigration controls.
“Putting forward foreigners as scapegoats is really inspired by direct democracy votes, which gave the SVP this toolbox,” Sciarini said.
The party’s youth section, meanwhile, is calling voters to the polls to prevent “drag queens, antifas and climate activists” from “ruin[ing] Switzerland and our society.”
The SVP also went musical for this election, releasing a provocative song titled “This is SVP,” inspired by the disco hit “We Are Family.” So provocative, in fact, that the clip was blocked by YouTube within a day following a complaint by the composer of the original song.
That didn’t stop the party from publishing an updated version, however, while denouncing what it called a “blockade motivated by political reasons.”
Who doesn’t love a star politician who’s ready to party?
This year’s election will be the last for Switzerland’s star politician, Alain Berset of the Socialist Party. Berset is the country’s most popular and longest-serving minister, with more than a decade on the job and two stints as president — an oddity made possible by Switzerland’s annually rotating presidency.
What’s that, you ask? Well, the Swiss government rules as a collegial body, which means that all the ministers are on equal footing, and decisions are taken by consensus. They each take turns at the presidency, which is a largely ceremonial title: The Swiss president represents the country on state visits abroad, but they are not the head of state. (Since you asked, that honor falls to the Federal Council as a whole, and its seven members collectively welcome foreign heads of state during state visits.)
Berset — whose extended portfolio as interior minister includes health — became a familiar face to the Swiss public during COVID. As he led the country’s response to the public health crisis, he famously took a brief stroll, incognito, through the streets of Bern to check whether people were obeying the country’s safety measures.
While his years spent in the unenviable role of Switzerland’s “Mr. COVID” didn’t dent Berset’s popularity — despite harsh criticism from the SVP — the end of his mandate was tarnished by a string of scandals.
Since his surprise announcement that he would not stand for reelection — which would have guaranteed him another four years in government, as Switzerland’s outgoing ministers are almost automatically reelected — Berset seems to have let his guard down. Last summer, he was seen smoking a cigar and downing a can of beer while attending a music parade in Zurich.
His departure leaves a spot open in the government — a spot which is expected to remain in Socialist hands, as the party will likely remain the second biggest in the country.
Berset’s successor will be elected by the new parliament on December 13.