The Weirdest Country in Europe

Europe has a lot of weird countries with a lot of weird political systems. San Marino, for example, is governed by two “captains regent” who wear sashes and funny hats. Andorra’s nominal head of state is the President of France, except in that country he is considered their “co-prince,” along with an obscure Spanish priest (who also rarely visits). And then you have your charming little principalities like Monaco, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein which are ruled by small, quirky royal families with odd titles.

Strange, yes, but  in many cases the weirdness is largely superficial. All these wacky people are largely figureheads, and don’t actually have much to with how the countries in question are actually governed in practice. Under all the folderol, they are just ordinary, albeit small, countries with run-of-the-mill parliamentary systems of government that none of us would have trouble recognizing.

The exception to this is the Confederation of Switzerland, which actually does have a political system that is one of the world’s most functionally unique. Indeed, it is really quite a difficult country for political scientists to categorize, because the way they govern themselves stands alone, in open defiance of all the various grand theories on how national governments are supposed to be organized.  

Switzerland  is basically a collection of German city councils that didn’t want to join the Holy Roman Empire, or any of the other German confederations that came after it. To ensure their sovereignty, in the 13thCentury the little city-states thus pooled their armies and joined up in a loose union which more or less survives to this day.

Because of this strong founding  focus on preserving what Americans would describe as the “states’ rights” of its members, early on in Swiss history it was decided that the best way to govern the Federation would be through some model of consensus decision making. The idea of having a strong central government was denounced, as was putting too much power in the hands of a single ruler—or later, political party.  

Since the dawn of the 20thCentury every parliamentary election in Switzerland has basically yielded identical results, with the four largest political parties, the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the People’s Party, and the Radicals, collectively winning a two-thirds majority; seats divvied up with roughly equal parity. The four parties then form a coalition government together, and split up the cabinet positions equally. In Swiss political lingo they call this the “magic formula” and the Swiss are taught to think of this as being the most natural and ideal form of government. You can get into into a weird chicken and egg type discussion about whether Swiss voters consciously vote to preserve this magic formula or whether the magic formula is preserved to reflect the will of the voters.

In what is perhaps the Swiss system’s greatest compromise of all, the presidency of Switzerland rotates between the cabinet ministers every year, so every party gets a chance to have one of their own be leader for a short period. In practice, however, the presidency is largely useless. The cabinet holds all power collectively, and the Swiss constitution weirdly even declares that it is the cabinet, and not the president who is the federation’s “head of state.” When the cabinet makes a decision it is likewise portrayed as one which is made by consensus. Their votes are never made public and members never criticize each other publicly, lest their behaviors imply that they are not operating with a single mind.   

Of course, we all know that collective management never works in practice, be it in a hippie commune or a nation-state. Certain dynamic personalities always come to dominate the decision-making process, and amass more power for themselves at the expense of others.

In Switzerland, one such domineering personality is Mr. Christoph Blocher. Because of the Swiss dislike of hierarchy, he’s not formally anything, just a member of parliament. But he’s still come to dominate the country’s political life in a big way as of late.

Other countries often imagine Switzerland to be some sort of utopia, and their famous neutrality in foreign affairs often seems inspiring. But the dark side of the Swiss culture of isolationism is a profound dislike and distrust of outsiders, and it is these latent feelings upon which Mr. Blocher has hitched his political career. A member of the People’s Party (SVP)—the most conservative faction of the four-party elite—Blocher is an extremely wealthy businessman who has used his personal fortune to back a variety of isolationist and xenophobic causes to considerable success.

Throughout the last three decades he has headed a string of “no” campaigns in successive Swiss referendums, opposing proposals for Switzerland to join the UN, the EU, and sending troops to international peacekeeping missions, among others. His political party has likewise made significant gains since he started becoming politically active; in the last decade the SVP has more than doubled its share of the popular vote. Blocher himself first won a parliamentary seat in 1980, and was appointed to cabinet in 2004.

In last year’s parliamentary election was his grandest moment yet. He threw a lot of money behind a campaign to make the election all about immigration—specifically, why Switzerland needs less of it.

Switzerland is already a very difficult country to immigrate to, but due to its small population it is still quite reliant on foreign labor. 20% of its population is foreign-born, most of whom are not citizens and can be—and are—easily deported. Still, there are a great many Swiss who dislike having any foreign workers around at all, especially the Muslim ones. As is the case in most of Europe, there is a growing fear that Muslims are simply a dangerous and un-assimilateable people who threaten the white Christian majority’s safety, culture and way of life.

Blocher openly played on these fears, using slogans and ads that many have criticized as being quite blatantly racist. There’s this one infamous poster in particular that shows three angry white sheep kicking a black sheep out of their little posse… But anyway, the strategy paid off handsomely for his party. The People’s Party ended up winning 29% of the popular vote in the 2007 parliamentary election, giving them 62 seats in the 200-member Swiss national assembly. This may not sound like much, but it was actually the biggest one-party sweep in nearly 88 years.

This of course ruined the magic formula, which is based around keeping the parties equal. Since the SVP now controlled  a clear plurality of seats they boldy demanded to get another seat in the cabinet, which the other parties refused to concede. So on December 13, the People’s Party made the shockingly unprecedented decision to abandon the coalition government altogether, and sit in the parliamentary opposition. The next day the parliament likewise rejected Mr. Blocher’s bid for re-election to cabinet.

On January 1, 2008, the Swiss Federal Council assumed office for the first time without a member of the SVP. The Radical Party Minister Pascal Couchepin became president for the calendar year, a position he had previously held for the duration of 2003.

The country is now essentially governed what amounts to an anti-SVP, anti-Blocher alliance. This hyper-partisan breakdown has in turn provoked a great deal of nationalistic weeping that Switzerland’s much-beloved model of “consensus government” is starting to break down in favor of the dreaded “adversarial” system that the rest of the world uses.

Mr. Blocher welcomes this, because he thinks the consensus model was a bit of a scam anyway. Far from being a shining example of egalitarian collective-rule, he portrays the system as little more than a bunch of out-of-touch political elites making bad policy through groupthink.

In the next election it seems reasonable to assume that Mr. Blocher and the SVP will openly ask voters to elect his party to power, and make populist arguments about how nothing will change unless control of the government’s agenda can be wrestled from the entrenched magic formula gang.

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3 responses to “The Weirdest Country in Europe

  1. I lived in Basel, Switzerland for about a year when I was much younger (my dad worked for Swiss Bank Corp., now UBS). Even at that age, I noticed people would be openly hostile if they heard us speaking a different language.

    Of course, I suppose it’s a totally different story in the French part of the country. I think there are more foreigners than citizens living in Geneva.

  2. Mr. McCullough,

    The Grand Duke of Luxembourg is a figurehead, yes. However, the Princes of Monaco and Liechtenstein are very much monarchs with real powers.

  3. i think this was a load off rubbish get straight to the point

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