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

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.
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.

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Part 2: The Incredible Stability of the Swiss System


Federal Councilor Moritz Leuenberger, a member of the Social Democrats, has often been asked who actually governs Switzerland. Can he also answer the question? "Of course," he says, speaking in his office in Bern. "The voters do. According to the constitution, they are the supreme power, and this also holds true in a political sense." Leuenberger knows from first-hand experience that it's not the government that has the last word in Switzerland, but rather the citizens who vote in referendums.

Leuenberger has been on the Federal Council for 15 years as head of the Department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications. He once calculated how many of his ministerial counterparts from the neighboring countries of Germany, France, Italy and Austria he has dealt with during his time as a department head. The total came to 115. Now he and his colleague, Hans-Rudolf Merz from the Department of Finance, are leaving the government. It's their successors who will be elected this week.

Leuenberger's long term of office is a prime example of the incredible stability of the Swiss system. He may be largely unknown outside of European political circles, but some of the greatest transportation projects in Europe were realized during his tenure, including the new Gotthard Base Tunnel, the longest railway tunnel in the world. Next month the breakthrough -- when the tunnels from either side meet -- will be celebrated. Switzerland plans to move most heavy goods traffic by rail, and it has introduced tolls on trucks and invested billions in public transport. The country's citizens have given their blessing to each of these steps.

Finding Solutions Together

Whenever anyone expresses doubts that it's possible to have continuity of government under the Swiss system of direct democracy, Leuenberger likes to point out that the new rail link through the Swiss Alps will soon be finished, unlike similar projects in other countries, such as the Brenner Base Tunnel between Austria and Italy which according to Leuenberger is a "long way" from completion.

"When it comes to transportation policy, for example, we see that voters have made decisions for decades on highly detailed issues and have always remained true to a sustainable policy of moving traffic from the highways to the rails," says Leuenberger. He adds that, in contrast to other countries, referendums in Switzerland don't serve as a means for people to protest and let off steam. Granted, the citizens voted a year ago to ban the construction of minarets, but this is "the only known example," he says.

Leuenberger is a staunch advocate of the Swiss system in which all parties work together to find solutions. He says that it is no coincidence that he, as a Social Democrat, has been able to liberalize former state-owned companies in the postal, telecommunications and railway sectors. As a center-left politician, he is able to persuade the trade unions not to call for a referendum.

No Need for Radical Change

Nevertheless, it wasn't easy for Leuenberger to be stuck with his greatest political rival, Christoph Blocher, in the government for four years. It was also difficult for him to publicly defend banking secrecy as a member of the government, even though he had personally always opposed protecting foreign tax evaders. "Governing places great demands on the individual, including mentally," says Leuenberger. He doesn't think much of across-the-board criticism of the system. An organization that is poorly managed doesn't need new statutes, he says, but rather someone new at the helm.

Today there are people who are pushing for five or nine federal councilors instead of the current seven. There is also a proposal to extend the term of office of the powerless federal president from one to two years. Leuenberger doesn't think this is a good idea. "If we're going to make a change," he says, "why not have a federal president for four or five years who doesn't have to head his own department and is perhaps even elected by the people? He would of course have to be trilingual, a symbol of integration for the entire country." He couldn't imagine, however, that a majority would support such an idea.

After all, Switzerland is simply not designed for revolutions.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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