Switzerland will be getting a new president next year. It’s no big deal. Like New Year’s Day, it happens regularly.
There are no months of open presidential debates and campaigns like those in the United States; there are no years of cat-and-mouse scheming and leaders magically rising up, as happens in South Africa.
The stakes for the top job are just not that high. In fact, the president doesn’t even really have special powers other than chairing the meetings of the Swiss Cabinet, or Swiss Federal Council, which consists of just seven members.
He or she is chosen from the council on an annual, rotational basis according to seniority, and it’s a bit predictable too, ensuring continuity: the vice-president steps up to become president, with the second vice-president stepping into their shoes – and retains their portfolio.
For instance, the incumbent, Simonetta Sommaruga, is also the justice minister.
“Every year a different member is president,” said a Swiss official, “but that doesn’t give you any more powers. He or she chairs the weekly [Federal Council] meeting and therefore has the title of president but, according to the Constitution, isn’t head of state. We don’t have a head of state that is impersoned by one person. If there are visiting heads of state, the president welcomes them, but the seven ministers sit together [to receive them].”
Show of hands
Decisions aren’t taken by the president but by all seven federal councillors, either by consensus or an open show of hands in a closed meeting.
A recent controversial decision came after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. The seven-member council decided that Switzerland should abandon nuclear power, although no deadline was set. The decision also didn’t happen according to party lines – the Swiss encourage independent thought in their politicians – but apparently pitted the four women members against the three men.
“It shows you the independence they have once elected to Parliament [known as the National Council]. They are independent from the party, because once they are in there [the Federal Council], they debate among themselves. Once they have taken a decision, it is defended by all seven,” the official said.
You are even allowed to defend the opposite of your party’s view, but it may eventually cost you politically.
Unless they resign, federal councillors are pretty much assured of re-election, although there have been four exceptions in the Swiss National Council’s 163-year history, the most recent being in 2007.
A right-wing billionaire from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), Christoph Blocher, was elected to the Swiss Federal Council in 2003, but was voted off four years later after a string of populist pronouncements and controversies.
With his big mouth and extreme positions, he’s a bit like Switzerland’s Donald Trump or Julius Malema. His Swiss detractors speak of him with embarrassed blushes.
“He had a populist approach and didn’t play according to [Federal Council] rules. He was quite open in his disagreement with decisions, and Parliament didn’t like that, so they didn’t re-elect him,” the official explained.
South Africans, weary of average to bad leaders, might be tempted to look at the Swiss system for solutions, even as the country prepares to sit out the last three-and-a-half years of President Jacob Zuma’s 10-year presidency.
But South Africans are as likely to be able to work such a system as they are to keep to Swiss time. Unlike in South Africa, formal politics in the strongly federal and highly developed European country is pervasive and low-key, but more complicated than the mechanism on an expensive watch.
Elections for the 200 members of the National Council – all part-time – occur every four years, and they in turn elect the Federal Council, which took place this week. After that, there can be more polls and referendums than there are holes in a Swiss cheese – about three to four a year.
The people have the power to call a referendum, provided they can collect enough signatures in 100 days. A topic that has young people talking is next year’s referendum on a possible basic income grant – set to be a staggering 2 000 Swiss francs (almost R30 000) a month, should it be implemented.
Elections aside, would this system work for South Africa?
Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir, of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, said democratic political systems could be divided into two streams.
One approach emphasises competition and confrontation, often leading to internecine social and political conflict that destabilises public institutions. The other, more consensual, approach seeks co-operation.
The Swiss, with their religious and linguistic diversity, have embraced the latter. South Africa is also diverse, but consensus-seeking might not necessarily work here. “We can’t go back on the historical reality in South Africa,” he said.
“There are very deep racialised cleavages in which identity and inequality coincide. The Swiss are racially more homogenous and don’t have a history of colonialism and apartheid.
“But they also have a system which creates order and balance between the power of politicians and the authority of the people, which can frequently either subvert, amend or endorse proposed laws and policy proposed by politicians. This constrains the power of the parties and executive politicians somewhat.”
Fakir added: “The danger with extraordinary popular power is that it can constrain policy mavericks but make concessions to regressive value principles like anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and pro-death penalty sentiments.”
In a country that has seen its share of mediocre government decisions and protests, the idea of a direct democracy and a low-key president with very little power is a temptation sweeter than Toblerone.
Carien du Plessis visited Switzerland as a guest of the Swiss government