The term “concordance” means “agreement” and has become an integral part of Switzerland’s political culture. It refers in particular to the executive body at the federal level, the seven-member Federal Council. The parties with the largest electoral strength share the executive seats among themselves, thus forming a quasi-all-party government. Linked to this is the principle of collegiality, which means that decisions taken jointly are supported and defended by all members vis-à-vis the outside world. This results in a body characterised by stability and often also by continuity. In the medium to long term concordance and collegiality thus ensure a decision-making mechanism that is characterised by amicable agreement and broadly supported compromise solutions. These principles of Swiss politics are not enshrined in the Federal Constitution, so they represent a kind of “customary law”, which can also be found to a greater or lesser extent at the cantonal level.
Concordance democracy contrasts with so-called “competitive democracy”, which is a hallmark of most other democracies worldwide. After elections, the party with the largest number of voters takes over the government or forms a coalition government with one or more other parties. At the next elections, with new majorities, everything can be completely different again. This puts a severe strain on the predictability of politics.
In Switzerland, the term concordance characterises not only the Federal Council but also the other political powers and bodies. All major political parties are included in the consensus-based decision-making process. Particularly when it comes to the allocation of political offices and leadership positions in the administration, the army and the judiciary, the principle of concordance ensures that the parties are taken into account in proportion to their strength.
Historically, concordance democracy has developed in Switzerland since the 1930s. Totalitarian political ideologies such as Fascism and Stalinism, as well as the world economic crisis, caused a polarisation between the labour movement and the conservative forces in Switzerland as well. With the expansion of direct democracy at the federal level (referendum in 1874, popular initiative in 1891) Switzerland’s political culture stood on a solid foundation at the time. Nevertheless, the First World War and especially the general strike of 1918 posed serious problems for Swiss politics. A central demand of the workersʼ movement was proportional representation in order to challenge the liberal supremacy that had held sway since the founding of the federal state in 1848 and had been cemented by majoritarian elections. The demand was met in 1919 with the first proportional elections to the National Council. This slowly eased the fronts between the conservative alliance (Bürgerblock) and the communist and social democratic parties. The Social Democratic Party (SPS) clear endorsement of military national defence for the first time in 1935 finally broke the ice. The conservative or bourgeois parties no longer considered the SPS a class enemy and were willing to fight the political battles on the democratic floor. This also strengthened cooperation between the parties, which finally culminated in the election of the first Social Democrat, Ernst Nobs, to the Federal Council in 1943. With the approval of a second seat in 1959, the SPS was represented in the collegial body of the Federal Council virtually in proportion to its party strength; the quasi-all-party government was perfect. This constellation was given the name “magic formula”.
The “magic formula” of the Federal Council
The corresponding party-political composition of the Federal Council, namely two SP politicians, two from the FDP, two from the CVP and one from the BGB/SVP, lasted from 1959 to 2003, making it probably the most powerful expression of concordance democracy. In Switzerland in particular, the alternative, an executive based on a (narrow) majority – a “competitive democracy” – is considered inefficient, as the opposition could make the work of government much more difficult by submitting too many referendum proposals.
However, the SPS in particular, and since the 1990s the SVP as well, have repeatedly torpedoed consensus politics by bringing their own political agenda into play, mainly by putting forward their own initiatives. Although this stimulates politics, it then always leads to the intervention of the other parties, which accuse the SPS and SVP of deviating from the government consensus and threaten them with expulsion from the Federal Council. In 2003 the electoral mathematics of the magic formula was restored with the voting out of a CVP Federal Councillor and the election of a second SVP Federal Councillor. Following an interlude from 2007 with a BDP Federal Councillor – the Conservative Democratic Party (Bürgerlich-Demokratische Partei; the BDP) emerged after the split from the SVP – the “normal state” has prevailed once again with a de facto “magic formula” since 2015.
Alongside federalism, direct democracy and the militia principle, concordance is a central pillar of Swiss political culture that has stood the test of time. Its advantages over a “competitive democracy” are obvious, because it acts to loosen the grip on political power in several ways, not least with the help of direct democracy: there is no “party dictatorship”; authoritarian individuals have little chance to make their mark; there is less corruption and more transparency in the political process.
However, even in a concordance democracy, constructive opposition is possible and can be quite efficient. The main opposition is the citizen’s vote, which can intervene in the political process at any time by means of direct democracy. In addition – apart from the problematic opposition policy of the pole parties SPS and SVP outlined above – smaller parties not involved in the government also have the possibility of pursuing intra- and extra-parliamentary opposition. A good example of this is the success of the Greens and Green Liberals as a result of the climate debate, which in the medium term could shake up the now existing “magic formula”.
Another important feature of the Swiss concordance system since the post-war period has been the inclusion of referendum-capable associations in political decisions. A referendum-capable association is an association with at least 50,000 members which, by activating its members alone, could bring about the necessary number of signatures in a referendum within a short period of time. With the so-called consultation procedure, these associations are given the opportunity to comment on bills before they are dealt with in parliament. In most cases, a compromise is then negotiated to make a referendum unnecessary. In general, the principle of concordance – the quest for compromise – promotes a smooth and objective political process that leads to good and reasonable solutions to immediate problems. We must make sure this continues in the future. •
First publication: blog.nationalmuseum.ch of 15 September 2021
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