By Stephan Kyburz
The Swiss Federal Council – Collective Executive Power
On Tuesday, December 7th, the Swiss parliament elected two new Federal Councillors. While Albert Rösti (55) of the People’s Party (SVP) was elected as expected, Elisabeth Baume-Schneider (59) of the Social-Democratic Party (SP) was a surprise winner, defeating the favored Eva Herzog (SP). Mrs. Baume-Schneider was the outsider candidate, being less well-known and from a rural town in the French-speaking Canton of Jura. She is also the tenth female Federal Councilor in the history of Switzerland. Now for the first time, the Canton of Jura, the youngest canton of Switzerland, has representation in the Federal Council. The Jura region broke away from the Canton of Bern and became its own full canton in 1979.
The Federal Council is the executive branch of government in Switzerland consisting of seven members, each presiding over one of the seven federal government departments. Hence, instead of a president, an executive council governs the country. Unlike a presidential system, where the president is elected by direct popular vote, the council is elected by both chambers of parliament – though a direct popular election was also discussed at times, and it is in fact applied for Cantonal Executive Councils.
But how did Switzerland get here? Historically the Federal Council has its roots in the French Revolution. During the last four years of the Revolution, 1795-1799, France was led by a 5-member governing committee, the Directorate. It was during that time that Napoleon invaded Switzerland in 1798, established the Helvetic Republic with a directorate government as a collective governing body. Around 50 years later In 1848, Switzerland wrote its first modern constitution confirming the collective nature of its executive government, the Swiss Federal Council.
Councils Vs Presidents
Having a committee or council as executive government was not only a possibility in France and Switzerland, but also in the U.S. During the drafting process of the Constitution of the United States, the New Jersey plan proposed a federal executive consisting of a few members. The plan proposed that the federal executive should be elected by Congress for a fixed term of four years, without re-election, and could be recalled by Congress when requested by a majority of states.
Now imagine if, besides Switzerland, the U.S. and France also had adopted executive councils. It is likely that councils instead of presidents would govern many countries around the world today due to their outsized influence on the constitutions of other countries particularly those in Latin America and Africa. The different institutional structure might shape the political decision-making process in a meaningful and substantive way.
The Federal Council of Switzerland is a collegial political body, thus it makes decisions collectively as a council by majority vote. Every member has equal standing, is part of the joint executive government, and has to represent and defend the views and decisions of the entire Federal Council in parliament and in public – even if that member has a different personal partisan opinion.
The broadly shared executive power and decision making promotes a broad set of experiences and political opinions integrated into the governing process. This makes for a stable administration without seesaw changes. Parliament is aware that only personalities with strong commitments to deliberation, cooperation and concordance are able to succeed in the council, and hence elects suitable candidates.
Updating Party Composition to Political Realities
According to the constitution, the Federal Council should reasonably represent the various regions and languages of Switzerland. Of course, since seven people can never adequately represent 8.5 million people that speak four different languages and live in 26 cantons, discussions erupt in the aftermath of every election. Nonetheless, this recent election was truly historic. It is only the second time since 1848 that a minority of councilors are from the German-speaking region. It is unusual, because around 62% of Swiss are (Swiss-)German speaking.
Typically, party affiliation is a far more important criteria for election. The seven council members belong to the four largest parties in parliament. In fact, throughout recent decades only around 20% of MPs have lacked partisan representation in the Federal Council (currently 23%). However, the recent rise of the Green and the Greenliberal Party raise new questions about the partisan composition of the council. Based on their share of seats in parliament, the Green Party faction rightly insists it deserves a seat in the Federal Council.
Switzerland will hold its next parliamentary election on October 22nd, 2023. Again, this will change the vote shares of parties in parliament. Subsequently, the new parliament elects all seven Swiss Federal Council members in December 2023.
About the Author
Stephan Kyburz is a political economist with a PhD in Economics from the University of Bern in Switzerland. He hosts the podcast Rules of the Game – Discussing Democratic Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @skyburz.
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