The Seven-Headed President: Switzerland Celebrates Europe's Strangest System of Government

By Mathieu von Rohr

The Swiss are in the middle of election fever as the parliament prepares to choose two new members of its government, the Federal Council, which acts as a collective head of state. But even Swiss experts have stopped trying to explain the country's bizarre political system to outsiders.

The official photo of the Swiss Federal Council shows the seven federal councilors and the chancellor, Corina Casanova. From left: Didier Burkhalter, Corina Casanova, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Ueli Maurer, Micheline Calmy-Rey, Hans-Rudolf Merz, Doris Leuthard, Bundesrat Moritz Leuenberger. Zoom
Alex Spichale/ Keystone

The official photo of the Swiss Federal Council shows the seven federal councilors and the chancellor, Corina Casanova. From left: Didier Burkhalter, Corina Casanova, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Ueli Maurer, Micheline Calmy-Rey, Hans-Rudolf Merz, Doris Leuthard, Bundesrat Moritz Leuenberger.

These days the Swiss are in the grips of a strange fever that is making headlines in newspapers and on TV. Anyone visiting the country would have a hard time figuring out what all the excitement is about, however.

Of course, they'd easily work out that it has to do with an election, including a neck-and-neck race between a certain Karin Keller-Sutter and a Johann Schneider-Ammann -- and it concerns the question of whether there is really room in the government for five women, or two members who both come from the canton of Bern. But they still won't understand a thing.

When the Swiss parliament elects two new members of the government on Wednesday of this week, the event will go largely unnoticed in the rest of Europe. Switzerland is known as a referendum-obsessed country where the citizens have the final word on every important issue. But who actually governs it?

Nearly three years ago, the German news website stern.de ran a story with the headline: "Casanova Governs Switzerland." This was based on an Associated Press report, which stated that the new chancellor in Bern is Corina Casanova -- which was correct. The only problem is that the chancellor in Switzerland is not the equivalent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but merely the government's chief of staff.

New Faces

The Swiss don't see such basic ignorance as an insult, but merely accept it as a fact of life. Historian Urs Altermatt, the country's most well-known expert on the Swiss system of government, says that he has given up trying to explain to people abroad exactly how the system works in detail.

Sitting in the historic district of the city of Solothurn on a sunny September day, Altermatt can hardly get a word in edgewise as he is interrupted by total strangers who want to talk about the chances of their favorite candidates for the government. It's as if Altermatt were a famous sports commentator and the topic was soccer. But the game here is one that only the Swiss comprehend.

This is roughly what it's about: Two of the seven seats on the Federal Council -- the Swiss government -- are up for re-election. That will presumably have no impact on the country's political orientation, but the individuals who take these positions in the government will remain there for many years, usually until they decide to resign. For the Swiss, it's almost as if a soap opera were being recast with new main characters.

The Swiss government also vaguely resembles a left-wing commune that is deeply committed to consensus decision-making. It has seven equal members, known as the federal councilors, who collectively govern the country. There are currently three women and four men. Each federal councilor is in charge of an executive department, and all seven vote on all decisions. There is no boss. The office of president, which one of them assumes each year, is a ceremonial position. The Federal Council is basically a collective head of state -- a president divided by seven, if you will.

Representing Everybody

Switzerland is a country whose constitution is designed to prevent concentrations of power. There are many rules when choosing new members in the Federal Council. All of the country's regions must be represented, the sexes need to be in the right proportion and, if possible, there should be members from all the country's three main linguistic communities (German, French and Italian). There also has to be proportional representation of all parties because, in a consensus democracy, all leading political powers govern together. There have been differences of opinion, however, among Swiss parties concerning the correct proportion ever since the right-wing populist Christoph Blocher of the Swiss People's Party (SVP) was elected to the Federal Council in 2003 and not re-elected four years later.

This year, it's actually up to the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the center-left Social Democrats (SP) to replace their outgoing representatives. This means that Karin Keller-Sutter and Johann Schneider-Ammann from the FDP and Simonetta Sommaruga and Jacqueline Fehr from the SP, as well as a representative of the SVP, are vying for the support of members of parliament, in hearings and backroom meetings. Every day the media announce who is currently in the lead. It's a wonderful ritual, and yet there has rarely been so much dissatisfaction with the system of government as there has been recently.

In the last few years, the Swiss have experienced crises such as the abduction of two of its citizens in Libya and international attacks on its banking secrecy laws. There has been harsh criticism of the government and its failure to stand up to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the European Union. The federal councilors have been accused of dilettantism. The consensus-based system no longer functions as it used to, because Switzerland is now highly polarized in a right-wing and a center-left camp. The political atmosphere is sometimes toxic nowadays.

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