The Electoral System
13 July 2021
Direct democracy, federalism and a unique political system of directly elected members of the executive (government) in the canton and the municipality are the basis of the country’s political stability.
On all three levels, municipality, canton and federal government (Bund/Fédération), the principle of collegiality applies: the government speaks with one voice.
The government can never be dismissed by parliament; on the other hand, the government cannot call early elections or dissolve parliament.
The Konkordanzsystem and the Zauberformel of the national government mean, in short, that the seven members are appointed based on a fixed distribution of seats per party.
It reflects the political balance of power over a more extended period. A major electoral victory of a new party never leads immediately to a seat in the government. First, this party has to prove its stability and sustainability.
The seven seats are distributed among the four largest parties: 2-2-2-1, with one sometimes losing at the expense of the other. However, the parliament ultimately chooses the individuals.
The electoral system
Equally crucial for political stability, however, is the electoral system. Switzerland has two parallel systems: the Majorzsystem or absolute majority of votes per candidate or the Proporzsystem or proportional representation based on the number of votes obtained by a party.
The representation of the people in the parliaments of the municipality, canton or the National Council is, in most cases (not all, see below) elected based on the proportional representation of the number of votes obtained by each party.
However, the senate (Ständerat/ Conseil des États) is elected per canton on the basis of the Majorzsystem. There are two seats per canton, only Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden have one seat (total 46 seats).
The governments of the municipalities and cantons (usually 5-7 members) are directly elected based on the Majorzsystem. It is unique in Europe and perhaps in the world.
Proportional representation focuses on parties. The political profile is more substantial. Smaller parties have a better chance to win seats.
The political profiling is less intense in an absolute majority choice between candidates (not parties). These individuals (who are members of a party) present themselves directly to the voters. They cannot hide behind the party. The bond between voter and candidate is much stronger.
In the Majorzsystem, majorities are not easy to achieve with pure ideology. One has to be moderate to attract voters from the centre. After all, it is about the absolute majority. It implies a willingness to compromise.
Guaranteeing the political centre is the main advantage of this system. It also prevents fragmentation into numerous small parties, and it gives governments stability.
The electoral system means that the parliaments are elected by a proportional representation of the votes. The governments are chosen by an absolute majority for candidates. The governments of the communes and cantons have close links with the voters.
The cantons organise the elections to the Senate (national level, the cantonal Parliament and Government. They must comply with Art. 51-1 BV: direct democratic elections.
The government’s election (5 or 7 members) of the 2 (or 1) members of the senate per canton takes place in districts. The canton is divided into constituencies.
The proportional system applies when choosing the parliaments. However, a number of cantons, including Schwyz, Graubunden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerhoden have constituencies with a Majorzsystem.
The Supreme Court (Bundesgericht/Conseil fédéral) has ruled that this can be detrimental to democracy in some cases. Article 51-1 Federal Constitution states that the condition of democratic elections has not been fulfilled.
Every vote has the same value and must therefore count in parliament. For this reason, the Supreme Court ruled on 26 September 2014 (Appenzell Ausserrhoden) and 26 September 2019 (Graubünden) that the Majorzsystem in some constituencies does not sufficiently represent the voters.
A Majorzsystem in a constituency is possible, but only under certain conditions (e.g. few inhabitants, less importance of political parties). For this reason, Graubünden is adopting a new system for the 2022 parliamentary elections. The adjusted system was approved in a referendum on 13 June.
The system of proportionality gives every citizen a vote that counts. It is the purpose of a representation of the people and by the people.
It is different for the government and the senate. The voter looks first at the person. The Majorzsystem is based on ‘that the best may win’. There is also a strong link between the voter and the politician.
The electoral system is a relatively well-functioning construct of direct choices for individuals for the government and through parties for the parliament.
Source: U. Häfelin, W. Haller, H. Keller, D. Thurnherr, Schweizerisches Bundesstaatsrecht, Basel 2020); A. Auer, Staatsrecht der schweizerischen Kantone, Bern, 2016).