Looking at the US Elections from the Swiss Point of View

Bruno S. Frey and Armin Steuernagel

Switzerland has borrowed its Constitution from the United States. It has had the same favorable experiences with it as the US. Since 1848 Switzerland has developed from a poor country to a very rich one. Moreover, according to the most recent UN Happiness Index, its inhabitants are, next to Denmark, the most satisfied with the life they lead.

The US and Swiss Constitutions are not identical but share some critically important features. Both feature two parliamentary chambers, the house of Representatives and the Senate, in which each state (in Switzerland the Canton) has two votes, and the Senators are directly elected. Once elected for four years, the executive cannot be dismissed by parliament. However, there are two major differences. While in the US the executive is composed of one person, the president, in Switzerland it is composed of a National Council of seven persons with the same power and competencies. The president of this council is the president of Switzerland, has no additional power and rotates automatically every year.

While in the US the executive is composed of one person, the president, in Switzerland it is composed of a National Council of seven persons with the same power and competencies.

Not surprisingly, from the Swiss point of view, the presidential race appears extremely personalized. An enormous amount depends on the competence, health and the character of the person chosen as president. Accordingly, the policies undertaken differ considerable depending on what person is elected. The personalization is particularly visible when the person is elected by a small margin of votes (such as president Bush), and does not muster a majority of the vote of the citizens participating in the election. The election takes on almost oligarchic features when one considers that the family Bush had a father and son as presidents (and yet another son as a serious contender), the Clintons a husband and (possibly) wife, and the Kennedy family has taken important positions after its president was killed. This impression of an oligarchy does not only seem to be a Swiss view; one of the major reasons of the support for Trump is said to be the dissatisfaction of a significant part of the American population with the “establishment”. This feeling against “Washington” repeats itself at every presidential election.

In addition to the extreme personalization of the race to the presidency, giving so much power to one person has another disadvantage. The president is an attractive goal to terrorists. Several presidents were indeed murdered, and many were seriously attacked. When American presidents visit a foreign country, they must be protected by virtually hundreds of secret service officers which does not reflect a particularly attractive picture for a democratic country. The old Greeks were convinced only non-democratic rulers (oligarchs or tyrants) would need protection against the people.

In contrast, in Switzerland national policy is quite stable because the members of the National Council must find agreements among themselves. Nobody can recall any member of the National Council ever being attacked or murdered. Indeed, the members of the Council are not normally protected by any secret police, and they travel in planes, trains, buses, and tramways like every other person.

Another important feature of Switzerland’s highest executive office is the fact that these seven persons represent the most important parties which are in parliament. Furthermore, the whole parliament decides who from the these important parties should be in the National Council, making cross-voting possible. Thus, the other parties de facto decide which person from a party should be in the Council. The result: The party leaders (even in Switzerland sometimes populists and controversial persons) will often not be elected by the parliament but a candidate that is less controversial and will guarantee a stable government. Populist party leaders have attacked this system in the last years because it gives them enormous disadvantages. They initiated a referendum in which the Swiss people had to decide if they wanted to elect the highest executive body directly instead of leaving this task to the parliament. The Swiss people voted this proposal down because most people have the view that the parliament can control the executive better than the people directly.

It is interesting to note that though the US and Swiss Constitutions are quite similar, the way the executive is arranged makes a significant difference to how democracies function.


Bruno S. Frey is Permanent Guest Professor at the University of Basel and Research Director at CREMA – Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts, Switzerland. Armin Steuernagel is a Research Associate at CREMA and presently researching at Columbia University.