Key Challenges

Slow-moving process
now a disadvantage
Over the past two years, the political system’s inability to respond quickly and effectively to challenges has become a prominent concern. Four cases of delayed responses stand out. First, the failure to respond quickly to the second wave of the pandemic in the fall of 2020. Second, the stalemate in finding a response to the European Union’s demand for a solid institutional basis for bilateral relations. Third, the failure to push through a CO2 reform in a referendum, even though this law is a prerequisite for achieving the country’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Fourth, the stalling of the pension system reform process. At the end of the review period, evidence is accumulating that in this policy field the political system is not able to overcome gridlock. Slowness has been a characteristic of Swiss politics for more than a century. This disadvantage has been compensated, as shown by various empirical studies, by the quality of the solutions found, especially in terms of efficiency and sustainability based on broad societal consensus, and on well thought-out policy designs. However, the more socioeconomic processes accelerate (i.e., not only that things change, but that changes occur at an increasing rate), the greater the burden slowness may become. Three institutional impediments to quick policy responses can be highlighted.
Direct democracy has
bias against reform
First, direct democracy has an inherent reform-aversion tendency in case of referendums, that is if citizens vote on a bill accepted by parliament. Besides a “no” heuristic (i.e., rejecting something one is unsure of or knows very little about), opposition from various sides of the political spectrum can be relatively easily mobilized by interest groups and political parties. A case in point has been the rejection of the CO2 law, which was defeated following the mobilization of homeowners, car drivers and citizens in rural areas, among others. Direct democracy is highly valued by Swiss citizens and political parties. It is considered to be the core DNA of the country’s political system. Therefore, institutional reform that makes direct democracy compatible with swift problem solution is arguably politically infeasible.
Reform of federal
system a possibility
Second, historically Swiss federalism differs from the “unitarian federalism” of neighboring Germany, as it gives cantons considerable and autonomous powers in policymaking (including taxation), and allows for variations in living conditions. This “dual model” in which federation and cantons have clearly separate tasks for which they carry sole responsibility has been significantly modified over time. This has brought Swiss federalism ever closer to the German model, which is well-known for its tendency for policy-gridlock. In particular, during the pandemic, cantonal and federal healthcare policies were strongly interlinked, which could be a major explanatory factor for the poor policy-outcomes during the second wave. While some experts support further “interlocking” and hence mimicking of the German system, others support a return to the “dual model.” Although institutional reform of federalism is politically difficult, proponents of the dual model may be encouraged by the direction of federal reforms in 2008. Hence, the so-called Germanification of Swiss federalism is not inevitable.
Corporatist model is
losing traction
Third, Swiss corporatism has been effective, with social partners designing policies in their fields, and efficiently sidelining parliament and party politics. This came, of course, at the price of the transparency and the jurisdiction of institutions and actors of representative democracy. In recent decades, the parliament and federal administration have increasingly gained power in the policy process due to external changes, interest organizations of capital and labor have lost influence and resources, political pressure groups have been layered onto the old corporatist system and new actors – such as citizen groups (e.g., the WWF) – have successfully gained access to the political system. In addition, media increasingly investigated previously opaque policy processes. Given the complexity of the Swiss political system and its vulnerability to gridlock, preserving or substituting the advantageous aspects of Swiss corporatism may be a major institutional challenge.
In addition to these institutional impediments to swift policy responses, two continuing challenges are to be noted.
Disconnect between identity and reality
First, there remains a disconnect between Swiss identity and reality. On the one hand, foreign workers and other migrants comprise a large proportion of the population. On the other hand, policymakers are struggling to implement popular referendums, navigating between “responsive” (i.e., implementing voters’ preferences) and “responsible” (i.e., furthering the common good under conditions of constrained choices) execution.
Migration generating conflict; Limits to right-wing populism?
Minimizing internal political conflicts fueled by migration is challenging. The share of foreigners within Switzerland’s population is among the highest in the world. Immigration has stimulated economic growth. To sustain the high economic growth rate, it will be essential that the country continues to recruit labor from abroad. An extraordinarily high proportion of elite positions in the economy and higher education are staffed by foreign workers. Foreigners are also younger than the average Swiss citizen. Consequently, they contribute far more to the Swiss pension system than they receive. Hence, they subsidize the Swiss pension system and contribute significantly to its sustainability. Nevertheless, immigration has prompted considerable concern among Swiss voters about house prices, jobs, the use of infrastructure (e.g., roads and public transportation) and national identity. Today, the SVP is among the strongest right-wing populist parties in Europe in terms of votes, representation in government and success in referendums. Notably, this political strength cannot be primarily attributed to xenophobia. At least in international comparison, Switzerland and some of the Nordic countries show a relatively low level of xenophobia. Even so, the SVP has been extremely successful in mobilizing xenophobic elements within the population. Nonetheless, the results of the 2019 general election suggest that the rise of right-wing populist movements in Switzerland has reached a limit of sorts.
Voter-approved measures not implemented; risk in violating international norms
A second challenge in recent years has been the growing number of popular initiatives that have been approved by voters, but which have been only partially implemented or not implemented at all. This failure to implement constitutional amendments derived from popular initiatives is not entirely new. Historical examples of provisions left unimplemented include the prohibition on absinth (1908) and the ban on gambling houses (1920–1921). Notwithstanding, these precedents are few and advocates of these initiatives were not in the political center. By contrast, the number of successful nativist-driven initiatives has grown in recent years and their advocates (e.g., SVP and related organizations) are politically powerful. Several recent initiatives remain only partially implemented because full implementation would violate international law, international treaties or economic norms. This has put the administration in a difficult position. Full implementation would violate international or economic norms, but partial implementation gives rise to accusations among right-wing politicians that the “will of the people” is not being respected. In order to mitigate the conflict between “responsive” and “responsible” government, political elites must effectively communicate that the Swiss nation – as all consolidated democracies – is at best semi-sovereign and that there are strict limitations on what the public can decide upon. Such a communication strategy, however, would clash with the self-image of the Swiss, who are immensely proud of their (perceived) independence and sovereignty.

Party Polarization

Polarization has
hampered reform
While party polarization has increased since the early 1990s, although arguably it has not increased further in the past two years. Major reform processes – in particular with regard to adaptation to external constraints – have been stalled or made very difficult as a consequence of party polarization. The results of the national election of October 2019 did not change much in the total share of the polar parties (Swiss People’s Party and Lega on the right; Social Democrats, Greens and the Swiss Party of Labor on the left) in the National Council (123 of 200 seats). However, there was a considerable shift to the left, which achieved in 2019 35% of parliamentary seats in the National Council as compared to 28% in 2015, while the right went from holding 34% of seats in the National Council in 2015 to only 27% of seats in 2019. Given the high stability of Swiss politics, this marked an extraordinary change. (Score: 4)
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