Swiss Political Parties: Dysfunctional, yet saner than American parties

If I could find a real job in Switzerland (and by “real” I mean one that wouldn't force us to live in Zürich), I think we would move here. Part of the reason is because of the political climate in Switzerland. It is not because Switzerland is a paradise of good governance. Rather, Switzerland is crazy enough to keep me in a constant state of engaged agitation, but (unlike America) not insane enough to drive me to paroxysms of despair. One way to understand this is by looking at the political parties represented in the Swiss parliament (spoiler alert: there are more than two).

Swiss People's Party (SVP)

Like most political parties that contain “people” in their name, the SVP has a very narrow definition of person. Their political dominance is based on keeping their constituency in a constant state of fear regarding marginal persons who (they allege) are trying to invade Switzerland: Germans, Muslims, and (most terrifying of all) German Muslims. Their favored means of doing this is by plastering the country with well-designed posters that couldn't possibly be construed as racist except by people who believe that posters can be racist.

Security Sheep

The SVP hates the EU and their most recent political victory was a ballot initiative that contradicted a treaty with other European nations on the free movement of people (Schengen). SVP leaders squealed with delight and condescension as EU officials experienced a collective panic attack. Of course, the SVP is committed to order and rule of law. Like all organizations dedicated to rule of law, the SVP has as its de facto head a charismatic leader, Christoph Blocher (though the de jure party leader is Toni Brunner). Given the weak spot all Swiss have for charismatic leaders, it is unsurprising that this party—the political distillation of Swiss values—should have one at its head.

Social Democratic Party (SP)

The motto of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland seems to be: “Never let governing get in the way of ideology.” It has been so successful in clinging to its ideology that—in a country full of left-leaning people—it has managed to divest itself of pluralities in all cantons but Basel-Stadt. In Basel, it has undertaken an admirable program for reducing automobile traffic. Rather than employing tolls or adequately subsidizing public transit like weak-kneed pragmatists, they have simply banned traffic in various parts of the center-city. Some have complained that no one will want to go to these zones if it is not possible to get merchandise to the shops located there, but an SP member will recognize that this objection is simply the last gasp of late capitalist logic escaping from the lips of the bourgeoisie.

The SP wants Switzerland to join the EU. However, they don't invest much effort in explaining how this would benefit Swiss citizens more than a series of smaller treaties would. Instead, they attempt to shame their constituents for their lack of solidarity with the rest of Europe. This has worked so well that they will never have to deal with the practical details of ascension to the EU.

FDP. The Liberals (FDP)

The FDP is a classical liberal party, meaning it favors market-based economics, non-state solutions, and civil liberties. It is as if a whole party of libertarians managed to mature past adolescence. It is the oldest of the major Swiss political parties, and is still the party of many urban economic elites (for example, business people who are interested in turning a profit), but its traditional constituency has been eroded in the past two decades by the SVP, due to its failure to put forward an adequately fear-based platform.

Christian Democratic Party (CVP)

The CVP is a Catholic party. It is also centrist party. It is somewhat like the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Germany, only more Catholic and less successful. It occupies the sweet spot that lies between voters who don't want the state policing their personal lives and voters who don't want the state giving their money to the poor. Since there are not really any Swiss voters in the doughnut hole occupied by the CVP, the party is shrinking in influence. It holds on because of inertia in the rural Catholic cantons of Switzerland (mostly in the central and southern part of the country).

Conservative Democratic Party (BDP)

The Conservative Democratic Party of Switzerland was born from a schism in the SVP. The relevant political wrangling is complex and involves three factors:

  1. The Swiss have a bizarre informal system under which all parliaments are expected to form coalition governments with proportions of members calculated by a magic formula.
  2. Despite the great love that all Swiss feel toward Christoph Blocher, some did not want him to be part of the government (Federal Council).
  3. The old, agrarian core of the SVP, in cantons like Bern and Graubünden, did not care for the activist role that the modern SVP had assumed.

Briefly, two other members of the SVP (from Bern and Graübunden) who were members of the parliament made an end run around Christoph Blocher when it was the SVP's turn to get a new seat in the cabinet (Federal Council). Relieved that they did not have to elect Blocher and company, the other parties gladly gave these candidates their support. The new members of the Federal Council were then asked to leave the SVP, which they did (taking most of their constituencies with them). Thus the BDP was born—a kinder, gentler, smaller, less interesting SVP.

Green Party (GPS)

Like many Green Parties, the Green Party of Switzerland can't decide whether it is one party or twenty-six (though to be fair, all federal parties in Switzerland are actually federations of twenty-six cantonal parties). What Swiss Greens can agree on is the fact that eating animal products is very bad, planting GMO crops is very bad, and driving a car is very bad. Nuclear power stands at the pinnacle of badness, because scientists are not to be trusted except when they are designating things as very bad.

Green Liberal Party (GLP)

In European parlance, “liberal” does not mean “center-left” like in North America. Rather, it means someone on the spectrum between Adam Smith and Ayn Rand. The Green Liberal Party of Switzerland is actually not terribly liberal, by European standards, or radically Green either. However, they are just far enough from the political center to allow them to be smug in two dimensions. They were founded in 2007 as a schism from the Green Party and appear to be a growing concern.

Evangelical People's Party (EVP)

As a socially-conservative, economically moderate Protestant party, the Evangelical People's Party is essentially what the American Christian Right would be like if they had a little bit more “Christian” and a bit less “Right”. Given the fervor of Protestants in contemporary Switzerland, the EVP is bound to enjoy a bright future as an interesting historical footnote.

Christian Social Party (CSP)

The Christian Social Party is party of moderate left-wing Catholics (or “bad” Catholics). It is very small, especially in light of the fact that bad Catholics are so numerous.

This collection is clearly a mess. However, there are some missing elements that keep me from feeling entirely at home. For example, there is no party that seems to be based around implausible (preferably racist) conspiracy theories. There is not a single party dedicated to unprovoked and preemptive wars (or a second party dedicated to half-heartedly supporting whatever war the first party initiates). There is no party so fragmented by its attempts to be all things to all people that it fails to concentrate on the one things that could unite it—effective governance. There is no party so afraid of its own shadow that its candidates present themselves as if they belong to some other party. There is no party so unable to convince its supporters to vote that it is perpetually relegated to minority status even where its supporters form a majority. I love the United States, but—all things considered—I think I'd rather live in Switzerland.

David R. Mortensen

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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