Concordance is a model of democracy that promotes consensus and ensures internal peace, and it is a hallmark of Switzerland’s political system. The system came into being at the beginning of the 20th century.
René Roca has a PhD in history and is a secondary school teacher and Director of the Research Institute for Direct Democracy (www.fidd.ch).
The term ‘concordance’ means ‘agreement’ and it has become an integral part of Switzerland’s political culture. It refers in particular to the executive organ at the federal level, the seven-member Federal Council. The parties with the largest number of voters share the executive seats among themselves and thus form, so to speak, an all-party government. Linked to this is the principle of collegiality, which means that collective decisions are supported and defended by all members vis-à-vis the outside world. This results in a body that is characterised by stability, and often also by continuity. In the medium and long term, therefore, concordance and collegiality provide for a decision-making mechanism that is defined by amicable consensus and broad-based compromise solutions. These principles of Swiss politics are not enshrined in the Federal Constitution and thus represent a kind of ‘customary law’, which can also be found to a greater or lesser extent at the cantonal level.The concordance form of democracy contrasts with the so-called ‘competitive democracy’, a principle that characterises 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. In the next election everything could be completely different again, with a new majority structure. This puts a significant strain on the predictability of politics.
In Switzerland the term concordance characterises the Federal Council, as well as the other political powers and organs. All major political parties are included in the consensus-based decision-making process. The principle of concordance guarantees that the parties’ views are taken into consideration in proportion to their size, especially when it comes to the allocation of political offices and leadership positions in the administration, the armed forces and the judiciary.
Historically, concordance democracy has developed in Switzerland since the 1930s. Totalitarian political ideologies such as fascism and Stalinism, as well as the global economic crisis, had brought about a polarisation between the labour movement and the middle classes in Switzerland. At that time, Switzerland’s political culture was on a solid footing, with direct democracy have been expanded at the federal level (referendum 1874, popular initiative 1891). Nevertheless World War I and, in particular, the general strike of 1918 caused serious problems for Swiss politics. A central demand of the labour movement was proportional representation, in order to challenge the liberal supremacy that had held sway since the state was founded in 1848 and was cemented by the majority system. This demand was met in 1919 with the first proportional representation in the National Council. The standoff between the conservative middle-class bloc and the communist and social democratic parties slowly eased off. The first clear approval by the Social Democratic Party (SPS) for national military defence, which was given in 1935, then finally broke the ice. The middle-class, conservative parties no longer classified the SPS as a class enemy and were willing to fight the political battles on the democratic floor. This also strengthened cooperation between the parties, eventually culminating 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 SP was represented almost in proportion to its party size in the collegial body of the Federal Council; the quasi-all-party government was perfect. This line-up was also known as the ‘magic formula’.
The ‘magic formula’ of the Federal Council
This party-political composition, namely two SP politicians, two from the FDP, two from the CVP and one from the BGB/SVP, was retained from 1959 to 2003, making it probably the most powerful expression of concordance democracy. In Switzerland in particular, the alternative, i.e. an executive based on a (narrow) majority – a ‘competitive democracy’ – is considered inefficient, as the opposition could make the government’s work much more difficult by submitting too many referendum proposals.
However, the SP in particular and, since the 1990s, the SVP as well, have repeatedly torpedoed efforts at consensus politics by bringing their own political agenda into play, mainly by putting forward their own initiatives. This does liven up the political landscape, but the result is repeated intervention by the other parties, which accuse the SP 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 one 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.
Great political importance
Alongside federalism, direct democracy and the principle of the citizens’ legislature, concordance is a central political pillar of Switzerland’s political culture which has so far proven very successful. The advantages over a ‘competitive democracy’ are obvious, because the mechanism of direct democracy acts, among other things, to loosen the grip on political power: there is no ‘party dictatorship’; authoritarian individuals have little opportunity to make a mark; there is less corruption, and greater transparency in the political process.
Even in a concordance democracy, however, constructive opposition is possible and can be quite efficient. The main opposition is the citizens’ vote, which can intervene in the political process at any time through direct democracy. Alongside this – in addition to the problematic opposition policy operated by the SP and SVP pool parties as outlined above – smaller parties that are not part of the government have the opportunity to initiate internal and extra-parliamentary opposition. A good example of this is the success of the Greens and Green Liberals as part of the climate debate, a development which, in the medium term, could knock the current ‘magic formula’ out of line.Another important feature of the Swiss concordance system is the inclusion in political decisions, since the post-war period, of the groups capable of forcing a referendum. A group capable of forcing a referendum is an organisation with at least 50,000 members which could by itself, by activating its members, achieve the required number of signatures in a referendum in a short time. With the so-called Vernehmlassungsverfahren (consultation procedure), these groups are given the opportunity to comment on proposals before they are dealt with in parliament. In most cases a compromise is then negotiated, which is intended to make a referendum unnecessary.
In general, the principle of concordance – the quest for a ‘balance’ – facilitates a smooth and objective political process that brings a good and reasonable solution to immediate problems. We must make sure this continues in the future.