A Beginner’s Guide to Switzerland’s Elections

by Adrian Favero (PiAP Switzerland focused Research Fellow)

This article originally appeared on EA Worldview

The Swiss federal elections are set to take place on October 20. Voters will choose the 200 members of the National Council, the lower chamber of the Swiss Parliament, as well as 45 of 46 members of the Council of States, the upper chamber. MPs will serve from 2019 to 2023.

About 2/3rd of people residing in Switzerland are eligible to vote. Turnout is about 50%.

Political Background

Swiss direct democracy offers citizens extensive opportunities to exert political influence beyond the Parliamentary institutions. Shifts in election results are relatively moderate and had no consequences for government composition between 1959 and 2003.

However, boosted by becoming the strongest party after the federal election in 2003, the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) demanded a reconfiguration of the Federal Council and a second seat, at the expense of the substantially weakened Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP). This changed the “magic formula”, the distribution of seats in the government assigned to the biggest parties.

Over the last 40 years, the SVP’s gains have been at the expense of the two centrist parties, the Radical-Liberal Party (FDP) and the CVP. The SVP almost doubled its voter share between 1995 and 2015, from 14.9% to 29.4%.

The party’s electoral achievements are grounded in an increasing investment of material and human resources and an aggressive and populist transformation orchestrated by Zurich billionaire Christoph Blocher. There is also some polarization within the Swiss system, with parties on the side of the political spectrum, the Greens and the Socialists, gaining some votes.

Graph showing trends in electoral support for the major Swiss political parties over the last 50 years

Source: Federal Statistical Office

Competence Issues and the 2019 Election

Multiple surveys show the central political issues for the Swiss population are pension plans, unemployment, the rising cost of health insurance, climate change, immigration, and the relationship with the EU. Some of these concerns have been prevalent over a long period of time, such as pensions, health insurance, and unemployment. The salience of other issues, such as immigration, climate change, and economic uncertainty, depend on the current political debate.

In 2015, the SVP benefited from the mobilization of voters concerned of the large numbers of refugees, while the FDP was recognized as the party that best deals with economic uncertainties. This “competence issue ownership” gave each a boost, with voters assessing how well and how much a party would deal with a salient problem.

The emphasis on the role of issues is important for the Swiss 2019 elections. Current topics may play a role in shaping voters’ choice. Michael Hermann from the Sotomo Research Institute argues that the discussion around environmental protection and climate change may have a decisive impact on voters’ electoral choice, and forecasts seem to confirm this argument.

The SVP is expected to lose electoral support even if it remains the strongest party in Parliament. Its core topics of migration and the relationship with the European Union lost prominence, as ascending issues favor other parties’ ownership of competence. The Greens and the Green-Liberals are expected to gain considerably.

Status of major party support according to SRG Wahlbarometer 2019 going into the 2019 Swiss Federal Election versus their standing in 2015

SRG Wahlbarometer 2019

Of the other main parties, the Socialists are predicted to defend second place. The FDP and CVP are expected to lose support.

However, these numbers hardly constitute landslide gains and losses, and the expected results are only for the National Council. Due to cantonal strongholds and person-focused votes, the CVP and FDP are likely to remain the largest parties in the Council of States.

Matteo Salvini is Down But Not Out in Italy

By Daniele Albertazzi (PiAP Principal Investigator) – Originally written for The Conversation

Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Lega (League) Party and former Interior Minister, has bad news piling up on him. The situation has gone from bad to worse since he brought down his own government last month in an attempt to force new elections.

It was clear immediately that President Sergio Mattarella was not willing to facilitate Salvini’s election plan. Instead, he encouraged coalition talks between unlikely allies — the Five Star Movement, which had been in government with the League, the Democratic Party, and the tiny Free and Equal Party. All went unexpectedly smoothly and this new government is up and running, having secured the confidence of Parliament.

The Democratic Party has allowed Giuseppe Conte, who led the previous government, to stay on as Prime Minister. This is a huge victory for him and for Five Star, but it came with concessions. The Democrats took control of many and important ministries, including the economy portfolio. That means an unapologetically pro-EU party is now in charge.

Five Star and the Democratic Party have shown an unexpected propensity for compromise so far. No doubt there will be plenty of clashes ahead, but there is also a realistic chance that the new governing majority will find agreement in areas about which their electorate very much cares, including investment in the green economy and the welfare state, legislation on precarious working conditions, and increased funding for education and southern Italy, to cite just a few.

Headlines now declare Salvini’s era has “come to an end”. Deprived of his job as Interior Minister, he will no longer be able to use a position of power to conduct a constant election campaign based on immigration and on law and order issues.

To those who have followed Italian politics for a while, however, these claims look very premature. There is no doubt that Salvini has miscalculated – he is wounded and struggling to repackage his loss of power as a victory. His image as the successful “Captain” (as his social media team has renamed him to differentiate him from the previous Lega head, who was known as “the Boss”) may take some time to recover. This may be a problem for a leader who has turned his party into a personalized organisation that very much relies on his image and communicative ability for its success. But Salvini has many cards up his sleeve, both in the strength of the organization backing him — well-rooted in the north and running a very efficient social media operation — and the issues he can campaign on in the near-future.

Strength in Opposition

For instance, Five Star is very successful in the south of Italy, so the new government is unlikely to deliver the kind of greater regional autonomy that wins votes in the north. In the northern regions, where the League has always been strong, the desire to see more tax receipts being used to improve public services locally is widespread. But introducing a reform that deprives the public purse of considerable resources would make it impossible to run decent services in the poorest regions of the south.

In this sense, not being in government is convenient for the League, as there was no way they would have managed to deliver what their northern constituencies wanted while sharing power with Five Star. The circle simply could not be squared on this issue, and any compromise would have looked like failure.

The same can be said of the 2019 budget, which is obviously going to be drafted by someone other than Salvini. Reconciling the League’s promise to cut taxes with the Five Star’s largesse on welfare would have meant either cutting tax by too little or to too few people. Now the League won’t need to compromise anymore, and neither will it be seen amending the budget to meet the objections of the EU Commission – as it had to do last year.

Then there is migration, which the League has managed to reduce to the much narrower, but symbolically charged, issue of people trying to cross the Mediterranean sea from Africa. Salvini’s approach (“let’s close the ports!”) has large support among the Italian electorate — including, interestingly, Five Star’s voters. No doubt the League will relentlessly focus on the supposed failures of the new administration on this issue.

Salvini has a clear message and “owns” several key themes such as low taxation, regionalism, immigration and law and order. He can also rely on a rooted party and a very efficient media operation.

Much like anyone else, he is, of course, beatable – and his aura as a winner has taken a heavy blow. But those now rushing to write his political obituary should take a good look at the reasons for the League’s success throughout the years, as well as the party’s presence on the ground and its ability to run effective campaigns. They won’t see this party or its leader disappear any time soon.The Conversation


Has Italy’s New Government Pushed Aside Matteo Salvini?

On Thursday, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte accepted a mandate to form a new coalition — one without the Lega party, Matteo Salvini. Populism in Action’s Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was interviewed about this for Turkey’s international TV news channel

Salvini, who has transformed Lega from a regional party for the north into a national force, gambled by bringing down the government in a split with his partner, the Five Star Movement.

But Five Star reached a deal with the centrist Democratic Party, which led the government until June 2018. And Conte, in an apparent jab at Salvini, vowed to lead a “more united, inclusive” Italy: “It will be a government for the good of the citizens, to modernise the country, to make our nation even more competitive internationally, but also more just, more supportive and more inclusive.”

Last week Conte, a law professor appointed as an “independent” to hold together the coalition, said in Parliament that Salvini had created a political crisis for “personal and party interests”.

So has Salvini’s quest to fashion himself as the leader of right-wing populism, often bashing both immigrants and the European Union, been halted?

Why Italy’s Salvini Will Survive His Russia Money Scandal?

by Shane Croucher for Newsweek. featuring Populism in Action’s Dr. Daniele Albertazzi.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s co-Deputy Prime Minister, Interior Minister and chairman of the far-right Lega (the League) Party, will survive the Russia money scandal that currently engulfs him and stay on course to become Prime Minister within months, according to an expert on the country’s politics.

BuzzFeed News obtained a recording of a meeting between Italians — including a close aide of Salvini’s, his former spokesman Gianluca Savoini — and Russians to discuss a deal that would have sent illicit oil money from Russia to the League for its European elections campaign.

The meeting took place in Moscow in October 2018 at the same time as a visit by Salvini to the Russian capital where he met with President Vladimir Putin. Salvini, whose party is now under investigation, has threatened to sue for libel over the reports, according to The Guardian.

The League’s coalition partners, the populist Five Star Movement, said they would only support a Parliamentary inquiry into the Russia deal — which apparently never came to fruition — if it covered the financing of all parties in Italy.

“Which is a way of saying no,” Dr. Daniele Albertazzi, an expert on Italian politics at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., told Newsweek. “Such an inquiry would take years, and would soon turn into a mess.”

Salvini, a hardline nationalist whose rising popularity comes off the back of his anti-immigration stance, particularly his opposition to allowing any more migrants or refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to enter Italy, aspires to the country’s Prime Ministership.

He is unashamedly pro-Russia and pro-Putin, and has sought closer ties between Rome and Moscow. When reports of the Moscow meeting first emerged in L’Espresso in February, Savoini dismissed them as “fake news”. Now, with the BuzzFeed tape, there is hard evidence.

According to a transcript of the recorded meeting, one of the unidentified Russians referred to Salvini as “the European Trump, because he has now become the head of all the ultra-right [in Europe]”. The Russians appeared to be liaising with the Kremlin over the proposed deal.

Salvini’s party currently has momentum in Italian politics. At the European Parliament elections in May, the League topped the polls and won over three million more votes than the center-left Democratic Party in second place. The Five Star Movement came third.

“I do not see this harming Salvini’s popularity,” Albertazzi, who expects the current coalition government to fall in the autumn over the budget or regional independence, told Newsweek:

Italians have other worries, and anyway, a lot of people will buy the line that this is all fake.

In any case, there is no smoking gun — so far — hat any money has in fact been paid, and no, I don’t think he will resign, nor that it will harm his chances of becoming PM, which I think is realistic to expect by spring next year.

A Non-Politician is Logical Choice to Lead Italy’s New Government…But He Won’t Last Long

“Soon a bolder government will be said to be needed – and the cycle will start all over again”

By Daniele Albertazzi – originally Published in The Conversation:

After a confusing election and months of negotiations, Italy has a government once again. But don’t be surprised if it gets a new one before too long.

The two winners of the 2018 election – the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League – have struck a deal to form a government, making the surprise announcement that they have chosen Giuseppe Conte, a law professor at Florence University, as prime minister.

Apart from having been mentioned by M5S before the elections as a possible minister, and apparently contributing to writing up the coalition deal, Conte has no experience as a politician – he isn’t even the leader of a party.

But that is precisely the point. Conte’s appointment allows both parties to save face. The League can point to his expertise in the law and conveniently ignore his contacts with M5S – hence getting this government off the ground and showing to the electorate that it is trying its best to provide leadership for the country. Meanwhile, M5S can say to its members that it has, to all intents and purposes, secured the premiership. After all, M5S did emerge as the biggest party after the election, with 32% of the vote versus the League’s 17%.

The other advantage offered by this solution is that, being unknown and having no party of his own, Conte is expected to follow the orders issued by his political masters.

Salvini’s Plan

But can this set up hold? It’s unlikely. In fact, the League’s leader Matteo Salvini has every reason to want it to fail. That would prompt fresh elections, in a couple of years at most. In the meantime, Salvini clearly plans to dominate the agenda for as long as Conte’s executive survives.

There are strong clues that this is Salvini’s plan, if you know where to look for them. In the “contract” the two parties have signed, it says at the beginning that the League will not be treated as the minor partner, even though it is. Neither party can “force decisions on their partner when it comes to issues of great importance to the latter”.

For Salvini, that means immigration and law and order. These are also the themes Salvini would be allowed to “own” if, as is now likely, the president agrees that he should get the job of interior minister.

The sections of the government contract dealing with immigration, law and order and justice are considerably longer than those addressing themes owned by the M5S, such as reducing the cost of politics. And it’s in these sections that the League’s repressive approach is particularly evident.

In this document, the M5S-League alliance promises to introduce tougher sentences for certain crimes, including when they are committed by minors. It will strengthen the right of self-defence and send illegal migrants “back”. There’s a plan to close what are described as “irregular” Islamic associations and mosques and to shut down unauthorised traveller camps. In short, these pages encapsulate Salvini’s thinking extremely well.

Compare these pledges to the section in the contract dedicated to the environment – a theme the M5S fully owns and which is irrelevant to its smaller ally. Here, we find little more than a list of generic platitudes. There are banal invitations to recycle more rubbish and consider the virtues of the green economy, ultimately begging the question: what can the M5S “own”, if it does not own this?

Built-In Obsolescence

The League needs the M5S – and its chosen PM in Conte – to try to implement the agenda set by Salvini, but only so that the latter can accuse them both of betraying “the will of the people”. That would justify bringing the government down and forcing new elections.

This time, a right-wing alliance dominated by the League could win outright – after all, the objective was not missed by much two months ago, and it is unlikely to be frustrated by a divided and ineffective left. The M5S nothwistanding, therefore, such developments could lead to Salvini being PM in the not-too-distant future. That this is Salvini’s ultimate goal is no mystery, as “Salvini premier” is even written into the party’s logo.

The whole game will be easier to play if Salvini does get the job of interior minister. He could then demonstrate hyper-activism on migration and law and order, only to see his efforts constantly frustrated by his coalition partner’s longstanding concern for human rights, interventions by the European Court of Justice, and/or the European Parliament.

These are exactly the challenges a previous interior minister from the League, Roberto Maroni, had to face when serving in the 2008-2011 government. Being attacked by the courts or international institutions can strengthen a populist party’s hand, by providing evidence that the “old elites” are at it again, frustrating “the will of the people” with their dirty tricks.

It is political leaders that matter in Italy. However, when “technocrats” have been given the top job before, some have tried to break away from their masters just before an election by starting their own party (think Mario Monti in 2013). The last thing Salvini needs now would be for Conte to deliver on some of the promises made in the contract, lead a united coalition and complete a full term in government, while his profile is strengthened by success and media exposure.

The ConversationFollowing an initial period during which the League will show its “good faith” by working alongside the others, the most likely scenario is for this government to collapse amid accusations that the programme is not being delivered, the PM is too soft, and M5S has given in to “Brussels”. A bolder government will be said to be needed – and the cycle will start all over again.

Who Isn’t Corrupt as Italy’s Election Nears?

Daniele Albertazzi  writes for The Conversation

Those in charge of auditing Italy’s capital Rome have said that the budget should not be approved as it does not “truthfully and correctly” reflect the municipality’s financial situation.

Patrizio Cinque, the mayor of Bagheria, a town in Sicily, is under investigation for abuse of office and omission of official acts.

The link? Both Cinque and the Rome administration come from the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which came to prominence pledging to fight the corruption that has dogged Italian public life for so long.

But hardly a week has gone by since the mayoral elections of June 2016 – when M5S gained control of several cities across Italy – without one scandal or another casting doubt on the reputation of M5S-run local administrations. Is the anti-establishment, anti-corruption movement founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian, becoming a bit too similar to the “traditional” parties it attacks? If so, does it risk losing the support of the people who have flocked to it in recent years?

A Skeleton for Every Closet

Italy’s recent history would suggest that this is a distinct possibility. It’s widely believed that the governing Christian Democracy and the Italian Socialist Party would not have collapsed as quickly as they did at the beginning of the 1990s were it not for corruption scandals. A series of investigations had a serious impact on public opinion at the time.

Since its inception, the M5S has exploited (and, in turn, fuelled) public anger towards the country’s “profiteering” political class. But now the tables seem to be turning and there is a question mark over whether it retains credibility as an anti-corruption party today.

M5S has recently changed the rules on who can run to become Prime Minister so that even would-be candidates who are under investigation for wrongdoing can stand.

This change has enabled the selection of Luigi Di Maio – the current vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies – to become the M5S candidate for PM in next year’s election, even though he is under investigation for defamation.

Whatever the seriousness of the allegations made against Di Maio, it just doesn’t look good that the rules have been bent to allow him to stand. It looks even worse considering he was the candidate favoured by the party’s founder, Beppe Grillo.

The party that could have benefited from the M5S’s troubles is the Lega Nord (Northern League – LN), which started attacking the political class “of Rome” many years before the M5S existed. Pity, however, that the LN is embroiled in a quagmire of legal proceedings of its own.

Following an investigation that started in 2013, its founder and former leader, Umberto Bossi, as well as his children, were given prison sentences for misappropriating party funds. The party’s accounts have now been frozen.

In the meantime, neither of Italy’s other main parties – Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI) and Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (Democratic Party – PD) – can reinvent themselves as a credible “corruption bashing” force. They’ve received their fair share of attention from investigating magistrates in recent years. Indeed, Berlusconi is still barred from Parliament, let alone from governing, having been found guilty of bribery as recently as 2015.

Better the Devil You Know

Where does this leave the Italian electorate? It has clearly been deprived of any credible political actors that can put forward those “anti-corruption” discourses that tend to have resonance. Yet there has been no sign that these recent events are having any noticeable impact on the way people are inclined to vote. In fact, the polls have hardly moved for years, with the respective electoral support of the left (i.e. the PD), the right (i.e. FI + LN) and the M5S remaining remarkably stable.

In 2013 each party or block attracted around 25% of the vote. Now, four years later, each appears to have increased its support slightly, attracting about 27% to 28%.

Unlike in the 1990s, Italian voters seem to have been “immunised” against political misconduct. Or, perhaps, it is just that anti-corruption voters have nowhere to go now, so they are forced to stay put.

The ConversationBe that as it may, what is certain is that a general election is coming by next spring. Whether one of the main parties or blocks will be able to govern without some sort of unnatural “grand” coalition becoming a necessity may well depend on the mechanics of whatever electoral law is adopted (a crucial question that parties are debating right now). And there is no guarantee that the matter will be resolved any time soon.

Could the Five Star Movement be Italy’s Next Government?

Amid a series of important elections in Europe — The Netherlands in March, France this month, the UK in June, and Germany in September — Italy may take its place. What could that vote mean for the country and for the European Union? Dr. Daniele Albertazzi considers the possibilities on the London School of Economics’ EUROPP Blog:

With a general election due to be held in Italy before next spring, the media are assessing the likelihood that the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S, Five Star Movement) may form the country’s next government. Some recent polls show the party enjoying the support of over 32% of the electorate, which would make it the largest party. Its nearest competitor, the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), has 26.8%, although the situation is very much in flux.

Throughout 2016, international media focused on the M5S’ criticism of Europe and the euro, peddling a narrative whereby Italy was about to deliver a mortal blow to the European project. This claim was much repeated before the constitutional referendum held in the country in December, after which — despite Italians rejecting the constitutional reform that was on offer and despite its proponent Matteo Renzi resigning from his job as Prime Minister — nothing much happened, either to Italy or indeed the EU.

Now the question on everyone’s mind, is whether the M5S will be able to form a government for the first time in its brief history. The short answer to this is that even the experts on Italian politics cannot make any sensible predictions right now.

The Known and Unknown

Consider just the known unknowns. First on the list is the date of the election itself – the only certainty being that it will be held before the spring of 2018. The second unknown is the electoral law that will be used in the elections – something Parliament is looking into as we speak, with the likelihood that the new electoral law will have a strong element of proportionality.

If this is the case, then it is far from certain that the M5S will have the numbers to govern on its own after the election, or manage to create a governing coalition with others. Even if it did, it would need to change the Constitution before holding a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro. Would the M5S take this perilous path not long after Italians have voted to keep the Constitution as it is? Very unlikely.

And then there are the things we know we know, although they do not help predicting the election outcome. The first on the list is that Matteo Renzi is back with a vengeance, on course to being elected leader of his party for a second time. He will most likely be the PD’s candidate for the Premiership.

Renzi may have lost the December referendum, but his side, the Yes camp, still attracted more than 40% of the vote on a decent turnout of 65%. Granted, not all of these people will vote for the PD in an election, but this remains a decent result to build upon in a forthcoming campaign, for a party already attracting about 30% of the national vote.

The second thing we know is that the right is in disarray, and has been since the fall of the last Berlusconi Government in 2011. Forza Italia is a spent force waiting for some Godot to save it from its founder Silvio Berlusconi. Polls suggest that it may gain as little as 12% of the vote in the forthcoming election, down from about 20% in 2013 and 38% in 2008. The party’s crisis is deep-seated, and a repeat of the media stunts for which Berlusconi was known in the past will not suffice to resolve it.

Leaving aside that, for legal reasons, Berlusconi will be very unlikely to run for the premiership in the forthcoming elections, he has not taken any credible initiatives in years and lacks a strategy to re-launch the centre-right electoral alliance. He would be well advised to step aside and leave the leadership of both his party and a renewed centre-right alliance to someone else, but there is no sign for the moment that he is willing to do this. Further complicating matters, Matteo Salvini – the leader of the Lega Nord (LN – Northern League), the most important party to have governed with Forza Italia – has ruled out taking part in a coalition led by Berlusconi and has put himself forward as the would-be leader of the centre-right.

With the LN also doing well in the polls – attracting more than 12% of the vote in contrast to the 4% it gained in 2013 – the party’s support may well be essential for the creation of any centre-right government in the foreseeable future. Salvini’s LN has gone through a process of reinvention in the last few years. From being a regionalist populist movement trying to achieve some degree of autonomy for northern Italian regions, the LN has transitioned into a nationalist party focusing on the whole of Italy. It is not afraid of collaboration with the likes of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party of Austria, not to mention extreme right organisations in Italy itself.

To fill in the space opened on the right by Forza Italia’s crisis, Salvini has created an organisation called “Noi con Salvini” (NcS – Us with Salvini) which is fighting elections in central and southern Italian regions in which the LN does not normally compete. So far, NcS’ performance has not been impressive, but it remains early days and it is impossible to predict the future for the organisation. Salvini’s popularity remains buoyant among centre-right voters, bringing a further element of uncertainty in the country’s political landscape.

It would be wise to leave predictions about the outcome to astrologers and to avoid crying wolf about Grillo’s M5S again — but, in amid fraught predictions about the European project, I am not optimistic that this is going to happen.

Beppo Grillo, the comedian who became leader of the Five Star Movement (Claudio Bisegni)