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What became of the environmental and women’s vote in Switzerland

27.01.2023 – INTERVIEW: SUSANNE WENGER

Parliamentary elections take place in Switzerland on 22 October. The last federal elections, in 2019, saw a green wave and shift to the left. At the same time, more women than ever were elected. What impact has all this had? We took stock with political scientist Michael Hermann at the onset of the 2023 election year.

Swiss Review: Michael Hermann, the left-leaning Green Party made gains in the 2019 Swiss parliamentary elections, and the Green Liberals gained ground as well. Two years later, the people rejected the C02 Law, which was supposed to be a step forward in environmental politics. What happened here?

Michael Hermann: It’s contradictory. First of all, there was a large green wave in voting, a historic shift in the balance of power in Switzerland. Then, under 50 per cent of people voted in favour of a CO? law that was not even particularly strict. Various factors led to the green wave having a smaller impact on policy than one might have thought. On the one hand, the climate and the environment are right at the top of the list of sources of concern for the population. On the other hand, as the law would have resulted in petrol and flying becoming more expensive, many people felt more attached to their wallet than to working together to save the environment. Another fact is that even in 2019, only a minority voted green.

The green parties nonetheless won 21 percent of votes between them. The Green Party won more additional seats in the National Council than any party had ever done before.

Yes, the Greens were outstanding in the way they mobilised. They were visible and active. However, to make an actual change to climate policy, you need to form broad alliances in the Swiss parliament, which is largely conservative. These alliances have only come about under the impetus of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had ramifications for the Swiss energy supply. All of a sudden, people were talking less about the global climate and more about keeping warm in winter and having enough power to run their homes and their businesses. This accelerated the energy transition in record time, whereas the political mills in Switzerland grind slowly.

“The reality of the Ukraine war has almost set more in motion than the green wave at the 2019 elections.”

Michael Hermann

You are referring to the solar offensive including funding for hydroelectric power that was approved by the Swiss parliament in autumn 2022 and came into effect straight afterwards.

Photovoltaics was long considered an alternative green fad in Switzerland, a soft technology. Now, solar energy is seen as a potential solution for making the country more energy-independent. It has become the vision for how Switzerland wants to shape the future of its energy sector. An alliance formed that included The Greens and the centre-right, and previously sceptical homeowners became fans of photovoltaic power. The reality of the Ukraine war has thus almost set more in motion than the green wave at the 2019 elections.

Your institute compiles election barometers on behalf of Swiss radio and television. One year before the 2023 elections, you observed that the green wave was losing momentum.

The Greens are having a hard time getting their message across. Their central theme of the climate and environment has become even more important since 2019, especially in the wake of the 2022 heatwave in Switzerland. However, the theme is no longer associated exclusively with the Greens, and the focus has shifted. Now, even power station people and the industrial sector are talking about renewable energies. It is more about securing Switzerland’s energy supply than about what the Greens are seeking: a resource-friendly lifestyle. The 2019 elections took place after a period of economic prosperity; now we are in the midst of a crisis. Themes that are seen as idealistic, such as those promoted by the Greens, are getting less traction.

In 2019, more women were elected to parliament than at any point since women were granted the right to vote in 1971. The percentage of women in the larger parliamentary chamber, the National Council, rose to above 40 percent. Has this also affected the policies being implemented?

Yes, it has. The female vote in 2019 was also aimed to an extent at fighting the political stereotype of the conservative alpha male, who has dominated Swiss politics for a long time, on both the right and the left. The parliament has now become more open and more progressive, which is being reflected in social developments. One illustration of this is the decisions being taken on childcare outside the family. This topic is now taken seriously, whereas in the past Switzerland had traditionally clung to conservative role models. Even marriage for all was adopted during this legislature, another sign of greater social openness.

2022 saw new gender gaps opening. In the referendum on a higher retirement age for women, men outvoted women by an unusually large margin.

The reform of the old-age and survivors’ insurance (OASI) had a direct effect on women’s old-age pensions and career prospects. Bills with such direct consequences for one gender only are a rare occurrence. In that respect, the OASI vote does not alter the general picture. It did, however, bring one fact sharply back into the spotlight: gender politics is about more than just lifestyle. It is about a traditional welfare policy and financial protection. This was a message to the SP in particular.

The Social Democratic Party rejected the OASI reform – one of the main legislative projects of the government – and lost by an unexpectedly small margin to the united conservative camp.

The OASI vote showed that social security issues, particularly from a female perspective, can mobilise people who do not belong to the SP camp itself. At the same time, certain party circles tend to highlight cultural war themes in identity politics, which can frighten off potential voters. In times of crisis like these, parties benefit from issues on which they are traditionally seen as competent. For the SP, this means welfare politics, and for the FDP it means economic issues.

Photo: Frank Brüderli

In 2019, all parties represented in the federal government lost a greater or lesser percentage of the vote and number of seats in parliament: the SP, the FDP, The Centre and – by easily the biggest margin – the large, conservative right-wing SVP. Could the SVP recapture lost ground?

Not really. It did remain the most voted for party in Switzerland. During the Covid pandemic, it took a stance against the protective measures taken and thus found itself aligned with Covid-sceptic movements. However, this frightened people away, in the same way as the pro-Putin stances adopted by SVP exponents on the war in Ukraine. In addition, the Liberal competition returned to a more conservative and right-wing position under their new party chairman, Thierry Burkart, in 2021. What the SVP is looking for is an important topic.

Are right-wing conservatives lacking an issue that people can get passionate about?

Up to the 2015 elections, the SVP had primarily focused on highlighting the issues of Europe and migration. This gave it an advantage over the other parties for several years. This has changed. The federal government has been so restrained in its policies on Europe that the SVP has no ammunition to use against it. Migration and immigration are now seen as less of a concern, especially with the lack of skilled personnel in Switzerland. If, however, the focus returns to the topic of foreign nationals over the next few months, the SVP will be able to mobilise more effectively than it did in 2019.

When the Eurosceptic SVP lost ground in the most recent federal elections many – not least in the “Fifth Switzerland” – hoped that common sense would lead to a coalition to handle Switzerland’s relationship with the EU. Why did this not happen?

The federal government applied the brakes, more than the parliament did. There is a conservative majority in the Federal Council on the issue of Europe. The FDP’s previous seat in French-speaking Switzerland is now held by Ticino native Ignazio Cassis. He comes from the linguistic region of Switzerland that is the most critical of Europe, whereas liberal Romandy is traditionally in favour of Europe and openness. The generation that currently sits on the Federal Council was forged politically by the rise of the SVP and fears conflict with it. Perhaps a new dynamic will emerge now, in the wake of the Ukraine war and the post-Brexit situation in the UK. The Swiss population is more Europhile than the Federal Council. Polls and the results of the 2019 elections show this.

The 2019 legislature had barely got off the ground when the Covid pandemic struck. It caused disruptions to which the Swiss were not accustomed. Will this have any ramifications on the elections?

Probably not to any significant extent, and that is very interesting. There were severe disruptions in response to protective measures in Switzerland, even by international standards. Many people, myself included, began to worry about the spirit of solidarity in the country. However, the fact that the measures were opposed so bitterly was partly a product of direct democracy. Twice we voted on Covid legislation, and twice the legislation was approved. It was clear to everyone that these measures were not some sort of dictatorial overbearance from the government, but were supported by the majority of the people. The Covid-sceptic movements collapsed within hours of the second vote.

The balancing effect of the Swiss political system?

There are always two stages. In the first stage, direct democracy virtually fuels conflicts and raises their profile. In the second stage, it leads to integration, because the topic has been discussed extensively. In Switzerland, the fault lines of the pandemic are therefore more clearly defined than in other countries, where they were not discussed to the same extent.

So does Switzerland remain an island of stability in the midst of crises – the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation, impending energy shortages and global warming, while majorities keep changing in other European countries?

It certainly does not look like there will be any major shifts. According to our survey in autumn 2022, one year before the elections, the popularity of the federal parties showed only minimal signs of wavering. However, we cannot rule out another issue becoming popular by autumn, regardless of how the situation regarding electricity shortages and the cost of living develops. Thus far, the rise in costs has been less drastic in Switzerland than in other countries. Incidentally, one issue gained prominence in the run-up to the 2019 elections: the green wave began to gain serious momentum in the cantonal elections in early 2019.

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