The surprising announcement by Swiss Federal Councilor and foreign minister Didier Burkhalter that he will leave the government on October 31 has set off speculation within Switzerland about who will succeed him. A less surprising comment during a television interview by another Councilor, Doris Leuthard, that she will also be leaving the government at the end of the current legislature has added to political posturing and intrigue in a country that prides itself on its democratic tradition.
But how democratic is the election of the seven leaders of the Swiss government? What kind of criteria are used in the election of the federal council? How legitimate is it to associate Switzerland with direct democracy?
In a world where democracy is more and more being called into question and where authoritarianism is on the rise, it is intriguing to examine the electoral process in a country that is universally considered a democratic beacon. Where many say that we are living in a post-democratic world, how does democracy function in the election of the Swiss political leaders in a country ranked eighth of 167 in the world on the state of democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit?
The seven Swiss federal councilors are elected by the 246 members of the Federal Assembly, the National Council and the Council of States. In this sense, the government is indirectly chosen by the people. But, whereas in the United States the presidential electors are chosen by the people based on the popular majority for the candidates in each state, the members of the Federal Assembly are not chosen by the people to vote for a specific candidate. They are merely chosen to represent their constituents. In this sense, the election of the Swiss government is one step removed from the American indirect election of the president and vice president by electors. The Swiss people indirectly indirectly elect their government. The ceremonial President and Vice President are also elected by the Federal Assembly from among the members of the Federal Council.
In the process of selecting the federal councilors by the Federal Assembly, various criteria come to the fore. In the current campaign, for example, attention is being given to the representation of the Tessin, the Italian -speaking region that has not had a representative in the government for over 20 years. A regional representation on the council is a constitutional requirement.
With the forthcoming retirement of Doris Leuthard, gender seems to be another major criteria. Ms. Leuthard and Simonetta Sommaruga are currently the only female councilors. In addition to geographic and linguistic representation and gender, political party membership is the third major criteria. The “Magic Formula” of dividing the Federal Council among various political parties is the backbone of Swiss political consensus.
The third mystery of the Swiss democratic system is the functioning of the elected government. Once the new member or members is/are chosen, the seven leaders meet to decide who will head each of the seven ministries. (The same system applies at the cantonal level.) Based on seniority, the various departments are allotted among the seven. This means that the oldest serving member of the government has the first choice of which department he or she wishes to lead, and so forth down the line. It is only among the officials that these decisions are made, which is hardly transparent or democratic. Citizens, even their representatives, have no final say in the matter although the major political parties have a great deal of influence on the decisions. (In addition, the members may change some of the alignments of the departments.) Someone may be foreign minister one day and finance minister the next. Merit or expertise are not primary considerations.
Are we being picky? After all, Switzerland has a system of direct democracy that is exemplary. Referendums can question any law if 50,000 citizens demand it. A popular initiative can request a change in the constitution if 100,000 citizens demand it. These examples of direct democracy give citizens the right to overrule laws passed by the legislature.
But, and this is not a minor but, the direct democracy does not effect the choosing of the seven federal councilors, something Swiss citizens have rejected, or the distribution of the various ministries. So, while Switzerland justifiably prides itself on its legislative direct democracy, the choosing of its executive leaders is very far from direct democracy.