Electoral Systems: The Swiss Parliament

Another student guest blog, this time explaining Europe’s political odd ball, Switzerland…

The country of Switzerland has a bicameral parliament composed of the National Council and the Council of the States. The lower house of parliament, the National Council, is comprised of 200 seats, while the Council of the States has 46. Despite their difference in size, both houses share equal power amongst all regards of law and governance, as well as the ability to introduce new legislation. Although the electoral system is rather complicated in terms of voting, it greatly empowers the citizens in a direct and transparent manner.

The mixed electoral system of Switzerland premises itself on incorporating its’ citizens in the epitome of a direct democracy through use of the Hagenbach-Bischoff system. The 200 members of the National Council are elected by the 26 cantons. In a proportionally representative manner, the cantons each elect a specified number of seats to the National Council, based on its size and population. In this electoral process, each party submits lists of the names of their nominated candidates (each candidate runs in only one canton). When voting, the citizens receive candidate lists from each party and are given the ability to alter them however they please. First, they can keep it exactly as the party proposed. Second, they can scratch out the names of candidates they don’t want to vote for and replace it with others. Next, the voter may choose to cross off names and simply let the remaining empty spaces on the ballot go to the party of the first individual. Lastly, if the voter aligns with more than one party, or instead wants to create a list of combined parties, they are enabled to do so as well. Thus, each voter is given a blank ballot in addition to the party lists so they are able to create a new list entirely. This process of utilizing lists of candidates as a manner to elect the National Council, although significantly more complicated than other electoral systems, allows the voters to act as independents and vote for the best candidates instead of a mere party. Basing the number of seats per canton in the National Council upon its’ size and population, combined with allowing citizens to create their own lists of candidates instead of simply alignment with one party, ultimately brings forth the epitome of a direct democracy.

In order to further spur this power of the people, and limit restrictions in the voting process, there is no electoral threshold. By eliminating the concept of a minimal threshold, even the smallest parties have the ability to see their candidates into office.

From the Inter-Parliamentary Union Parline Database, available at http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2305_E.htm

As seen in the results of the latest (2011) elections for the National Council, the seats were split up amongst 11 parties. Parties such as the Geneva Citizens Movement, whom won their seat by attaining only 11% of the votes within Geneva and a smaller percentage within the entire election, are able to attain a seat despite the presence of the larger parties. Thus, despite the intrinsic strength of the larger parties, the voters can vote solely on the individual candidates rather than the associated parties, and those whom stand for the betterment of ones’ specific canton. This allows for the National Council to consist of the best candidates as a whole, rather than the nominations of the winning party.

In the end, winners of the election are the candidates receiving the greatest percentage of votes within each canton, but divvyed amongst the parties given the percentages. Thus, the more seats that the canton has, the greater likelihood a small party will prevail in gaining a seat. Zurich, for example, has 35 seats within the National Council, allowing for the smaller parties within this canton to have a higher likelihood of wining a seat (smaller cantons that only have one allotted seat, however, will be winner-take-all). Ultimately, this process allows for the citizens to elect candidates on the basis of being best suited for individual cantons, collectively giving the people an extremely direct voice in this freedom of choice election. This empowerment allows the freedom of any candidate to be a contender in the electoral process, but as a result, compromises the consistency of the parliament as a whole. Without a PR threshold, these smaller parties are able to gain seats within the National Council, and potential add complications to the decision-making process.


Council of States . (n.d.). Schweizer Parlament . Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://www.parlament.ch/e/organe-mitglieder/staenderat/Pages/default.aspx

Hermine, G. (2011, October 25). Switzerland: World Elections. World Elections. Retrieved March 1, 2012, from http://welections.wordpress.com/category/switzerland/

National Council. (n.d.). Schweizer Parlament . Retrieved March 1, 2012, from http://www.parlament.ch/e/organe-mitglieder/nationalrat/Pages/default.aspx

Parliament and Legislation in Switzerland’s Political System. (2004, January 1). Democracy Building. Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://www.democracy-building.info/switzerlands-parliament-legislation.html

Swiss Cantons (Federal States): political map and statistics. (n.d.). Switzerland’s Government and Politics. Retrieved March 1, 2012, from http://swiss-government-politics.all-about-switzerland.info/swiss-federal-states-cantons.html

Switzerland. (2012, February 23). Bureau of Public Affairs. Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3431.htm

Switzerland Database. (n.d.). Inter-Parliamentary Union. Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2305_A.htm

Switzerland Electoral Process . (n.d.). ACE Electoral Knowledge Network. Retrieved March 1, 2012, from http://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/esy/esy_ch

Switzerland’s Political System: Decentralisation, Federalism and Direct Democracy. (n.d.). Democracy Building. Retrieved March 2, 2012, from http://www.democracy-building.info/switzerlands-political-system.html

Switzerland: Constitution, Government & Legislation. (n.d.). Jurist Law. Retrieved March 1, 2012, from jurist.law.pitt.edu/world/switz.htm

Switzerland: Parliamentary Elections. (n.d.). NSD: European Election Database. Retrieved    March 1, 2012, from http://www.nsd.uib.no/european_election_database/country/switzerland/parliamentary_elections.html



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