The parliamentary elections in Switzerland deprived the right of its majority. Can the surging greens and the social democrats take advantage?
The word ‘historic’ is often done to death in election analyses. In the elections in Switzerland on October 19th, however, the notion is true in at least three regards.
First, the Green Party—a clearly left-wing party in Switzerland—gained 17 seats in the lower house (the 200-seat National Council) and now holds 28, with a vote share of 13.2 per cent (up 6.1 percentage points). Such a gain has never taken place in Switzerland’s stability-oriented political system since the introduction of proportional representation in 1918. With a gain of 3.2 percentage points, the Green Liberal centre party also significantly increased its representation in the National Council, to 16 seats. The elections in Switzerland (the results for the majoritarian upper house, representing the cantons, were incomplete at time of writing) can thus very clearly be described—even more clearly than anticipated—as climate elections.
The Social Democratic Party (SP) was also hit by the ‘green wave’. While the two green parties won, on its left and right, the SP, which has been pursuing a consistent green policy in parliament for years, lost 2 percentage points and now has a 16.8 per cent vote (39 seats, minus four). This is the second, unfortunately negative historical event. Never before has the share for the SP been so low. It remains however the second strongest party in Switzerland.
And above all, the common goal of the SP and Greens was achieved: the majority in the National Council over which the right-wing parties—the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP)—presided in the last legislature has been broken. Now, the SP and Greens can gain a majority in the parliament if they are supported by the centre parties. That provides an important prerequisite for a more social, ecological and tolerant politics in parliament.
Third is the proportion of women in the new parliament: in the National Council it is a historically high 42 per cent. In the run-up, various sides had called for ‘women’s elections’ and this appeal picked up strong force thanks to the huge success of the women’s strike which took place in mid-June. The mobilising effects of the climate and women’s movements led to different people voting in 2019 than in 2015, when above all the issue of migration/refugees was in the foreground, driving right-wing voters more strongly to the polls. Out of that has come a greener, leftist, more feminine and also younger parliament. Voter turnout was 45.1 percent, however, the lowest since 2003.
To complete the picture: the far-right SVP, which has stamped Switzerland’s political landscape for a quarter of a century—and functions as something of a model for the various younger far-right parties in Europe—remains the strongest party. It lost 3.8 percentage points, however, and is now at 25.6 per cent (53 seats in the National Council).
Distribution of power
With the victory of the parties with green in the name, finally, the question of a new government composition arises. According to the Swiss consensual-democracy idea, the seven-member Federal Council is composed of representatives of the strongest parties. Currently there are two seats for the SVP, two for the FDP, one for the Christian Democrat People’s Party (CVP) and two for the SP. All those parties lost votes and seats in this election, which has significantly reduced the anchoring of the executive in parliament and the right-wing majority in the Federal Council is no longer in tune with the distribution of power there.
It is not yet quite clear whether the Green Party will actually push for one of the seats held by the bourgeois parties, probably the FDP, in the Federal Council election in December (it is elected by the parliament). The talks between the parties in the coming weeks will tell.
The crucial question is now which policy the left-green bloc will pursue over the next four years (and beyond). First of all, it is to be hoped that progressive solutions can be found on the hitherto blocked dossiers of pension policy, European policy—the key phrase being an Institutional Framework Agreement between Switzerland and the EU—and health policy, thanks to the new power distribution.
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But it’s about more than that: given the immense social challenges which confront us, left-green politics today can really only be a politics that goes all-out and wants to change everything. We cannot any longer lag behind the demand for ‘system change’ recently popularised by the Fridays-for-Future movement.
But what does such a system change mean and how can it be achieved? In an interview shortly before the elections, the president of the Greens, Regula Rytz—asked what she thought about the turn away from capitalism demanded time and again by the climate strikers—opined from the perspective of the Greens that fundamental change was needed to overcome the climate crisis. Everything necessary could however be decided democratically within the framework of the prevailing political and legal system, she said. And in interviews on election night, Green leadership ranks seemed—in typical Swiss fashion—very keen to emphasise their willingness to compromise and their pragmatism.
Is this the right strategy? ‘A fundamental change’ must be struggled for against the interests of those who benefit from the status quo and are not ready to give up their power and privileges. This applies even in the face of a universal existential crisis such as global heating.
Let us take only the protection of private property guaranteed by constitutional law in capitalist democracies. If one reasonably assumes that a system change would also have to restrict the right to make financial profits at the expense of humans and nature, then the Greens and social democracy must pursue a politics which rethinks and democratises private property—no, it’s not about taking away from people their toothbrushes, laptops or bicycles, but, quite classically, private ownership of the means of production. Massive resistance is inevitable.
Roughly speaking, there are currently three—tightly intertwined—mega-social developments to which a political system would have to find adequate answers: besides global heating, these are social inequality and dealing with migration and ‘integration’. As to all three questions, democracies constituted as nation-states are today very clearly pressing against their limits. An emancipatory, solidaristic and sustainable politics is therefore a politics which also goes, as it must, beyond the framework of democracy as we know it.
A responsible politics can consequently no longer administer the status quo, but rather must consistently aim for a socio-ecological transformation of our societies. Such a transformational politics could, for example, set the following priorities in Switzerland—and Europe: a one-off climate levy on large financial assets to finance a climate fund; the systematic conversion of the transport system to public circulation instead of motorised individual and air travel; the expansion of codetermination rights in companies (as Thomas Piketty urges in his new book, Capital et idéologie); the social protection of people who are being run over by accelerated neoliberal digitalisation, and the phasing out of the arms industry. Finally, specific to Switzerland, a comprehensive revision of electoral and civil rights is needed in favour of the large number of residents without a Swiss passport (the proportion of foreigners is about 25 per cent), who remain extensively excluded from the democratic polity.
Such a programme could be embellished with the commitment to a world parliament, a ‘People’s Chamber’ based at the United Nations. These would be components of a transformative policy which also transforms democracy—democratising it and bringing it up to date.
What are the chances that left-green will pursue such a transformative policy? It is positive that the SP and Greens can be classified as relatively left-wing and system-critical. In recent years, the SP has developed the first programmatic foundations for a transformational politics, among other things under the concept of economic democracy. The question is whether the party finally has the hitherto missing will and courage to push this programme consistently and in the longer term, in the sense of a counter-hegemonic project. How the SP wants to face the future next year will show—if, according to all expectations (and as the electoral result implies) a successor to the long-time party president, Christian Levrat, is elected.
It will be interesting and important, moreover, how the relationship between the SP and the Greens develops further. Until now, the Greens have been in reality the junior partner of the SP; now they will act with greater self-confidence. This changed constellation will almost inevitably lead to conflicts—interpersonal and political-strategic. It will be of central importance that the Greens, who now send some rather inexperienced and nationally unknown parliamentarians to Bern, retain their leftist profile and, together with the SP, stand up for climate justice, as well as social, tax and economic demands.
An indisputable strength of the left in Switzerland is its proximity to the unions and the social movements. Alive and fundamentally constructive connections between parties and movements are essential for a successful politics of transformation. In view of the upcoming tasks and the breaks to be executed with the status quo, left-green will also have to invest a lot in relationship work and mediation. Consider, for example, the frictions which could arise between trade unions and a climate movement on the offensive, which must be faced with a common perspective of a social climate politics.
A just and good life
Left-green is thus challenged. The SP and the Greens must do more and otherwise than left-wing politics has done in recent years and decades. It is important to operate the entire political keyboard: to be successful in parliamentary terms and to govern well—obviously—but also to identify clearly the urgency and the dimensions of the simply necessary change. We need to gain the authority to interpret what a just and good life can mean for everyone today—in the parliament, in the parties, in the movements, in the life-world of the people, together with them.
A system change demands something of all of us. Of course, positive election results help. But using them effectively and transformatively is now the big, the real challenge.
Pascal Zwicky holds a doctorate in media studies and was responsible for policy issues at the Swiss SP until the end of 2018. Today he works in the education system of the city of Zurich and is active in the think tank Denknetz.