Opinions - 20.11.2018 - 00:00 

Swiss Federal Council elections: No content please!

Fundamental political issues seem to barely play a role in the public debate surrounding the Swiss Federal Council elections, to be held on 5 December 2018. Is this just a discussion about personnel? Patrick Emmenegger, Professor of Political Science at the University of St.Gallen (HSG), paints a picture of the current mood.
Source: HSG Newsroom

20 November 2018. In the federal council elections, to be held on 5 December 2018, the party-political composition of the board will not be called into question. Instead, discussion has focused – until now – on a balanced representation of the sexes and the regions. Candidates from Eastern and Central Switzerland are therefore at the centre of attention.

A balanced representation of the sexes and the regions should not be called into question here either. What about political content then? The Department of the Economy and the Department of Infrastructure are both currently vacant. In view of suspected ambitions to transfer, the Department of Justice and the Department of Defence could also become the new workplaces of the successful applicants.

What policies do the candidates stand for? Should Viola Amherd (Managing Director of the Lötschberg Committee), who is herself from Valais, have a say in the decision to extend the Lötschberg Base Tunnel? Will Karin Keller-Sutter, a member of the board of the Swiss Employers’ Association from St. Gallen, soon be in charge of Swiss economic policy? Or should Zug’s master farmer, Peter Hegglin, be the one to shape Switzerland’s agricultural policy instead?

Admittedly, in view of the still unclear division of departments, it is difficult to hold a discussion of any concrete substance. It is true in any case, however, that the two new members of the Federal Council will have a decisive influence on national policy. As a result of the decision-making processes in the Federal Council, they will also be involved in shaping all important business in the other departments. Their influence must therefore not be underestimated.

Central challenges in Swiss politics

Switzerland faces a number of key cross-departmental challenges. What are the Federal Council candidates’ views on these questions? Switzerland’s relationship to the European Union (EU) has been “under construction” since the late 1980s. A framework agreement with the EU is currently under discussion. The EU’s demands concern, among other things, the softening of accompanying measures and the adoption of the EU Citizens’ Rights Directive. According to one contender, however, Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter of Basel, there is no alternative to the framework agreement. Several referendum committees are currently collecting signatures against the AHV tax package. Hans Wicki, from Nidwalden, describes the bill as a good Swiss compromise, however. Beyond cantonal politics, little is known about Christian Amsler, from Schaffhausen, and Heidi Z’graggen, from Uri. These would be the proverbial cats bought in the bag, then.

One would think that such questions would be at the centre of debates around the composition of the government. In Germany, where the CDU presidency and thus the role of successor to Angela Merkel is currently to be filled, the debate focuses on the break with Merkel’s policy (e.g. Friedrich Merz) or its continuation in a slightly modified form (e.g. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer). No such debate can be observed in Switzerland.

Debate on fundamental issues

The Swiss culture of debate is different. In probably no other country are specific issues such as relations with the EU more frequently made the subject of public debate. Every vote on the topic – in the case of the EU about once a year – triggers a new debate. At the same time, however, there is hardly any public debate on the fundamental issues around Switzerland’s relationship with the EU outside the scope of these proposals. Is the bilateral path still effective? Do we need a reboot? Or should we perhaps even consider joining the EU? When such questions arise, they usually produce the reflexive response that there is no majority for them. Interestingly, as a rule, these majorities seem to be established before the debate. That may be called a refusal to discuss the issue at hand.

I am looking forward to the Federal Council elections on 5 December 2018. As a native of Lucerne, living in St. Gallen, I am in favour of a regionally balanced representation (i.e. a representation of the Swiss canton of St. Gallen: one seat each for Eastern and Central Switzerland). Furthermore, since we men have four seats on the Federal Council, this time around it could also be two women; but please don’t ask any questions of substance until then!

Photo: / Schlierner