Geneva citizens will soon be electing the seven members of the executive branch of the Cantonal government. The second round of voting, established by the new Constitution, will take place on November 10. Although it is reasonably simple to explain the system of voting and the election procedure, there are two particularities that remain puzzling.
There are seven members of the Geneva executive because there are seven departments. However, when voting in the election, citizens are only asked to select the candidates without any reference to which department the person will head if elected. In other words, we will be voting for individuals as members of political parties with no knowledge about which part of the government the elected will head. When voting, how many citizens will vote for a candidate thinking that that person is eminently qualified for a specific job which the person may not wind up getting?
Based on seniority, the elected executives will choose among themselves the different department assignments. (The same is true at the Federal level.) So, someone who has a background as an accountant and would be obvious to head finances could wind up in charge of security or health simply because of seniority and personal preferences. In Geneva, the voters have confidence in the executive’s choices for departments wherein in the United States the legislative branch must confirm the President’s choices for ministers.
The assumption behind this system, I suppose, is that within each department there are civil service specialists who know the ins and outs of the particularities of the department. The political figure in charge is supposed to be a good manager, not a real specialist. Nonetheless, it is disconcerting to imagine someone who has a background in agriculture, for example, to be in charge of the canton’s school system, all the way up to and including the university, as it would be for a lawyer to head finances. There are limits to being a good generalist and manager.
The second puzzling element of the election is the denomination of the departments themselves. Once the seven Conseillers d’Etat have been elected, they choose among themselves the departments they are to lead as well as the various functions each department is to have. For example, there is now the Département des affaires régionales, de l’économie et de la santé. This was not so in the previous government; there was no combination of health and economics, and this title may not be so in the next government. So, the seven elected officials will not only decide among themselves without checks and balances which departments they want to lead, they will also decide the titles of and activities within each department. Not only is this denomination undemocratic since there is no consultation among those who elected them or eventually the legislature, it is also expensive in terms of changing offices and letterheads.
Switzerland prides itself as an example of best democratic practices. However, the above two elements in the electoral process appear to be fundamentally undemocratic with absolutely no checks and balances by citizens or other elected officials. The assumption is that those elected should have the freedom to make certain choices. Those responsibilities should be taken into account by voters in the upcoming election.