Supplementary election to the Federal Council: No revolution in sight in Bern

The supplementary election to the Federal Council, scheduled for Wednesday 7 December, is not expected to produce any surprises. A look at the candidates and the issues at stake.

By Amédée Hirt

On Wednesday 7 December, the full Federal Assembly will meet to elect two new Federal Councillors. On 30 September, Ueli Maurer, the Federal Councillor in charge of the Department of Finance, SVP from Zurich, announced his resignation at the end of the year. He was followed on 2 November by his colleague, the socialist in charge of DETEC[1], Simonetta Sommaruga. While Ueli Maurer’s resignation was expected, Simonetta Sommaruga’s departure was more abrupt, accelerated by the state of health of the Bernese minister’s husband.

Once these decisions were taken, the question remained as to who would succeed them. Quickly, a large number of presumed “front-runners” and even favourites decided not to run. In the SVP, women are especially conspicuous by their absence. Esther Friedli (National Councillor SG), Natalie Rickli (State Councillor ZH), and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher (National Councillor GR, daughter of Christophe Blocher), are all serious candidates who have renounced to enter the race. In the end, the ticket proposed by the SVP parliamentary group in the federal chambers includes two names: Albert Rösti and Hans-Ueli Vogt, while the only female candidate, State Councillor Michèle Blöchiger from Nidwalden, was eliminated.

For the Socialists, it was clear from the start that Sommaruga should be succeeded by another woman. This was despite the rebellion led by Zurich State Councillor Daniel Jositsch, who himself wanted to be elected. In the end, Eva Herzog and Elisabeth Baume-Schneider will be presented as the official candidates of the Socialist Party in the Federal Assembly on Wednesday. They were preferred to Evi Allemann, Minister of Justice of the Canton of Bern, lawyer, and young mother of 44 years.

Four candidates for two seats [2]

Albert Rösti (55) is considered the favourite to replace Ueli Maurer. Representing the powerful Bernese section of the SVP, which is traditionally more agrarian, the National Councillor from Uetendorf is also in line with Christoph Blocher’s ideas. As party president from 2016 to 2020, his long experience as a parliamentarian in Bern is in his favour. Outside the ranks of the SVP, he is seen as a friendly person with whom one can discuss and find consensus. However, his hard-line background and proximity to the fossil fuel industry weaken the position of the agricultural engineer by profession.

Rösti is competing with Hans-Ueli Vogt (53), a candidate from Zurich. His profile stands out in the conservative SVP. An intellectual and professor of law at the University of Zurich, he is also openly homosexual and has often made a name for himself by taking positions opposed to the party line. The former National Councillor (2015-2021) is a convinced sovereignist. He is a member of Pro Suisse, the successor to the Association for an Independent and Neutral ziSwitzerland. He can count on the strong support of the SVP in Zurich and his urban profile may appeal to the left. If he is not elected, it would be only the second time since 1848 that the Canton of Zurich has not been represented in the Federal Council.

Eva Herzog (61) is the favourite among the Socialists. The Basel State Councillor can draw on her many years of political experience, including a stint on the executive of the Canton of Basel-Stadt between 2005 and 2020. After a failure in 2010, the historian by training seems to be well on her way to the Federal Council this year. Representing the liberal wing of the Socialist Party, she is also attractive to the right.

Her competitor is Elisabeth Baume-Schneider (58) from the Jura. She is also a member of the Council of States and has a long political career, notably as a member of the executive of the Canton of Jura. As vice-president of the Socialist Party, she is not the favourite to run against Eva Herzog, as she represents a Latin canton. The election of the Jurassienne would imply a majority of representatives of Latin cantons in the Federal Council, even if Elisabeth Baume-Schneider is perfectly bilingual. Her rather left-wing positioning could also make her lose some votes on the right. At the same time, the Canton of Jura has never been represented in the Federal Council since its creation. What if this year was the right one?

What’s at stake ?

With one year to go before the federal elections, the challenge for the newcomers will be to convince people to keep their seats in 2023. Especially since the “magic formula” could well change next year depending on the results of the Greens and the Green Liberals, whose electoral weight will probably allow them to claim a seat in the Federal Council. As the Greens have given up their bid for a seat in this by-election, the current composition of the Federal Council (2 SVP, 2 FDP, 2 SP, 1 CVP) will last at least until the next federal elections in autumn 2023.

Apart from the mathematical representation of the political forces, this election also involves the small matter of compliance with Article 175 of the Constitution, which states that “the various regions and linguistic communities must be fairly represented in the Federal Council”. For the time being, the Federal Council is composed of Alain Berset from Fribourg, Guy Parmelin from Vaud, Ignazio Cassis from Ticino, Viola Amherd from Upper Valais and Karin Keller-Sutter from St. Gallen. Two Romans, one Ticino and two Germans. 

With the departure of a man from Zurich and a woman from Bern, it is to be expected that two Swiss-Germans will take over the two seats. This is why the choice of Elisabeth Baume-Schneider may be surprising. However, the constitutional article leaves much to interpretation. It is legitimate to ask whether the linguistic communities may be as well represented by a perfectly bilingual person. 

Beyond language, regions – perhaps even more so – must be represented. Some people are therefore concerned about the potential absence of a Zurich native in the Federal Council, with the agglomeration of the city of Zurich having nearly 1.5 million inhabitants. How can it be justified that a region with almost 20% of the country’s population is not represented in the national executive? And similarly, are the rural areas not over-represented in the Federal Council, given that three quarters of the Swiss population live in urban areas? We also hear a lot about the peripheral areas. Can the Canton of Jura be denied this long-awaited seat?

This question of representation can be taken even further. All the current members of the Federal Council, as well as the candidates, are over 50 years old. And with the exception of Ignazio Cassis, who became a naturalised Swiss citizen at the age of 15, no member or candidate has a migration background. Given that almost 40% of the Swiss population is of migrant origin (1st or 2nd generation), and that 20% of the country’s population is of foreign nationality, should we not question the almost exclusive presence of ethnic Swiss in the confederal executive body? The Socialists have also raised the issue of the maternity or paternity of elected representatives. By encouraging young mothers to run for office, the left-wing party was trying to make the position compatible with family responsibilities. On the other hand, today no one is calling for a fair representation of the various denominations in Switzerland.

By pushing the criteria for candidates so far, one may assume that the parties will miss out on a large number of serious and interesting candidates. Because the longer the list of attributes goes on, the narrower the choices become. On the other hand, in a recent study, political scientist Sean Müller, argues that including minorities in the Federal Council is more important than including majorities, especially in constructing a country’s sense of unity.

In any case, the ball is now in the court of our parliamentarians who will make their choice this Wednesday, and a priori, without surprise candidates. A female Socialist and a male SVP will replace a female Socialist and a male SVP. It remains to be seen which woman and which man, even if the die seems to have been cast for political observers.

[1] Federal Department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications


Picture credits: ©Lukas Graf, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

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