There is significant fluctuation at Swiss cantonal parliaments, according to a study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation at the University of Bern. The composition of parliaments in Western Switzerland has seen the fastest rate of change, while the term of office of politicians in Eastern Switzerland is the longest.
Politicians are elected to office, and sometimes they fail to be re-elected. A change of heads in governments and parliaments is a key aspect of democracy. The benefit of this fluctuation is that new heads bring new ideas to the table. “It is important that the rate of change is not too high, however, since this can reduce expertise and efficiency can suffer,” explains Antoinette Feh Widmer of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Bern. Earlier studies have shown that the “ideal” turnover rate in membership of parliaments is around 20 to 30 per cent per legislative term.
However, the composition of Swiss cantonal parliaments is changing much more rapidly, as Feh Widmer shows in her doctoral thesis. On average, the fluctuation in membership per legislative term in the period from 1990 to 2012 is an incredible 50 per cent. There also appears to be a clear east-west variation. The highest rate of change can be found in the canton of Geneva (69 per cent), followed by Jura (63 per cent), Fribourg (61 per cent) and Vaud (59 per cent). The most stable parliaments are those in Appenzell Innerrhoden (29 per cent), Grisons (35 per cent) and Thurgau (39 per cent). In Appenzell Innerrhoden and Grisons this may be attributable to the first-past-the-post elections contested there.
Political culture makes a difference
According to Feh Widmer, there are probably also aspects of political culture underpinning these differences. She reports that in Western Switzerland, membership of a cantonal parliament carries greater prestige than in the German-speaking areas. As a result there is more competition for places, resulting in higher fluctuation rates. In total, the rate of change is high in all cantons, says Feh Widmer. There are no studies, however, into whether this has a negative impact on parliamentary work.
The most common cause of a change in representation cited by the study is the member’s resignation, either at the end of a legislative period or during their term of office. The proportion of parliamentarians who fail to get re-elected is low by comparison. However, there are ma-jor differences between the cantons. In Appenzell Innerrhoden, only three per cent of elected representatives fail to win the support of the electorate at the next elections, while in Schaffhausen this rises to 31 per cent. “This high rate of non-re-election could tie in with the mandatory voting requirements in this canton,” explains Feh Widmer.
Time is more important than money
The researcher also investigated the reasons given by members of parliament when resigning. She surveyed almost 400 politicians in the six cantons of Berne, Geneva, Zurich, Aargau, St. Gallen and Uri. The results show that there is no single pattern of resignation. Rather, the reasons for withdrawing from parliament are individual and various. “Age is frequently a factor,” says Feh Widmer. In addition, resignation is often linked to being very busy professionally. Financial considerations are of minor importance, as the remuneration for parliamentary work seems to have little impact. Instead parliamentarians often indicate “time” as being a key reason for their decision to leave office.
Feh Widmer’s analysis is clear: if the cantons wish to persist with running their parliamentary systems as citizens’ legislatures (part-time public service), they need to ensure that the time commitment de-manded of members of cantonal parliaments is bearable. Otherwise the result could be an increased level of professionalisation, and certain groups of people might no longer have the time for parliamentary work, despite holding a keen interest.
Antoinette Feh Widmer
University of Bern
Institute for Political Science
Phone +41 31 631 83 33