Greens set for major gains in Swiss elections

Voter concern about climate change could trigger a "green wave" in Switzerland's elections on Sunday, possibly yielding unprecedented gains for parties that back bold action to protect the planet.

Greens set for major gains in Swiss elections

Under Switzerland's unique political system, the nationwide vote will decide the 200 lower house lawmakers and 46 senators elected to four-year terms, but the make-up of the executive Federal Council will not be decided until December 11. 

The country's so-called “magic formula” sees the council's seven cabinet positions divided among the four leading parties in the legislative branches, with the presidency rotating each year among the cabinet members.

The Green Party has never performed well enough to claim a Federal Council seat, but polls suggest its fortunes are rising.

This year, it could push its way into the executive branch through a coalition with the Green Liberal Party, according to experts and recent polls.

“We have every intention of being a force in government because I believe that is what Switzerland needs,” Green Party vice president Lisa Mazzone told AFP.

'Top of the agenda' 

In the 2015 vote, the anti-immigrant right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) stood first with 29.4 percent support.

The SVP, which has repeatedly been accused of waging campaigns that demonise migrants, remains atop the polls with 27.3 percent support, according to a survey released this month by public broadcaster RTS.

The poll also indicated that the Green Party, which won 7.1 percent in 2015, is now backed by 10.7 percent of voters.

And it gave the Green Liberals 7.3 percent support, an uptick on the 4.6 percent of the vote they took in 2015.

University of Geneva political scientist Pascal Sciarini told AFP that the data shows that anxiety about migration, the dominant issue in 2015, “has dropped significantly”.

“Concerns about climate change are now at the top of the Swiss agenda,” he said. But the path for a staunch environmentalist to claim a Federal Council seat is complicated.

There are substantial divisions between the Greens and Green Liberals, notably over the state's role in socio-economic affairs, and the two parties may not be able to agree on a unity candidate for a ministerial post, experts and party officials said.

'Dormant' electorate

The rising environmental concerns of the Swiss electorate were on display in a series of recent demonstrations.

Tens of thousands of people turned out in several cities in April for “climate strikes” partly inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Last month, 100,000 people marched through the capital Bern demanding comprehensive climate action from the next government, a significant turnout for a country of 8.5 million people.

Of the four parties that currently hold Federal Council seats, only the SVP are climate change sceptics, having denounced the role of “climate hysteria” in Swiss politics.

The Socialists have dubbed their programme a “Marshall Climate Plan,” while the right-leaning Free Democratic Party has called for higher taxes on air tickets to offset emissions from jets.

That represents a major shift for a party previously silent on environmental policy.

In a campaign that has seen multiple parties tout their climate credentials, the Green strategy has relied on mobilising “a dormant electorate,” Mazzone told AFP.

Average turnout in a national Swiss election is typically below 50 percent and Mazzone explained the party has “identified a lot of potential among abstainers, especially young people.”

The director of the Sotomo political research firm, Michael Hermann, told RTS that the shift from immigration to climate as the country's top political issue is one of the most dramatic pivots he has seen in Swiss politics.

“The green wave is rolling along,” he said.

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ANALYSIS: Greens face dashed hopes – and new leverage in German vote aftermath

With growing fears about global warming, deadly floods linked to climate change and a new political landscape as Angela Merkel leaves the stage, it should have been the German Greens' year.

ANALYSIS: Greens face dashed hopes - and new leverage in German vote aftermath
The Greens co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck at the Greens' election event in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

After launching their campaign for Sunday’s general election in the spring with a youthful, energetic candidate in Annalena Baerbock, the sky seemed to be the limit – perhaps even taking the chancellery.

But although Germany has never seen an election campaign so focused on the climate crisis, the party turned in a third-place finish behind the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), leading the race by a whisker, and the outgoing Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats.

However Baerbock, 40, proved popular with young voters and her party with around 14 percent strongly improved on its 8.9 percent score from four years ago.

It is now widely expected to play a key kingmaker role in the coalition haggling to form a government.

“We wanted to win the chancellery, unfortunately that wasn’t possible,” Baerbock said late Sunday.

“We made mistakes but we have a clear mandate for our country and we will respect it. This country needs a government that will fight global warming – that’s the voters’ message.”

A fateful series of missteps by Baerbock as well as a perhaps more tepid appetite for change among Germans than first hoped saw the Greens’ initial
lead fizzle by early summer.

LIVE: Centre-left Social Democrats edge ahead in German election results

It never recovered.

“It was a historic chance for the Greens,” Der Spiegel wrote in a recent cover story on Baerbock’s “catastrophic mistakes”.

“The Greens stand like no other party for the big issue of our time but that doesn’t begin to ensure that they win majorities. They need a broader base.”

Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

‘Shameless and complacent’

Baerbock captured the imagination of Germans when she announced her candidacy in April, and her promise of a fresh start after 16 years of Merkel rocketed the party to the top of the polls.

But by this week, even her co-party leader Robert Habeck admitted that the Greens had been forced to set their sights lower.

“The distance to the chancellery has grown quite large of course,” he told the daily Die Welt.

“We saw that our political rivals didn’t have much interest in change and kept saying ‘Yes, yes, climate protection is nice but it shouldn’t be too expensive’.

Without recognising that not protecting the climate is the most expensive answer.”

He said the Greens’ rivals “want to continue the Merkel era in the campaign, as shameless and complacent as possible”.

‘Hold all the cards’

Critics sought to portray the Greens as a “prohibition party” that would lead to rises in petrol, electricity and air ticket prices.

The party has advocated stopping coal energy by 2030 instead of the current 2038, and wants production of combustion engine cars to end from the same year.

While Germans pay lip service to climate protection, a recent poll for the independent Allensbach Institute found 55 percent oppose paying more to ensure it.

“The Germans have decades of prosperity and growth behind them – there were hardly limits and that burned its way deep into the public consciousness,” Spiegel said.

“Doing without is linked to dark times – triggering memories among the very old of (wartime) turnip soup and alienation among the young used to having more and more to choose from.”

On the other hand climate activists, who rallied in their hundreds of thousands across Germany on Friday, said even the Greens’ ambitious programme would fall short in heading off climate-linked disasters in the coming decades.   

Meanwhile Baerbock’s relative inexperience was laid bare under the hot campaign spotlight.

“She overestimated her abilities and then she doubted herself – not a good combination,” Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education
near Munich, told AFP.

“She should have been more patient and waited until next time.”

Despite the sobering outcome, the Greens nevertheless look well-placed to make the most of a junior role, under either SPD candidate Olaf Scholz or the

Armin Laschet, political analyst Karl-Rudolf Korte told ZDF public television as the results came in.

He said “all eyes” would be on the Greens and the other potential kingmaker, the pro-business Free Democrats, who came in fourth place with about 11.5 percent.

“Those two parties hold all the cards,” he said.

By Deborah COLE