‘Women Are Always Right’, But Is The Right Feminist? – Female Representation within Swiss Politics

By GLOBUS correspondent, Ilaria Ravazzolo

The common perception of Switzerland is that it’s a ‘good’ country which is doing well economically and never seems to have any serious problems. What most people probably think of right away is chocolate, money, and banks (not necessarily in that order). It’s true that people in Switzerland enjoy a higher standard of living than in most other countries, which makes it seem like a very progressive country. Most people who visit Switzerland praise its cleanliness, order, and its natural beauty. Little do they know, behind this perfect ‘neutral’ façade there are some very backward ideologies. Those who are interested in studies of gender equality might know that Switzerland was one of the last countries in Europe to grant women full suffrage on a national scale in 1971. Some might even know that the last region to give women suffrage on a local level did so in 1990 – almost 20 years later. There are plenty of examples that showcase the irony of this late adoption of political gender equality. For example, in the 1980s the first female member in the Federal Council took her place at a time when female members of the Parliament were allowed to vote and candidate in national elections. Some of them weren’t, however, allowed to do the same on a local level because their region hadn’t granted women full suffrage yet. This sounds ridiculous but, sadly, is true.

To those not familiar with the Swiss political system this might sound a bit confusing, so let me start by explaining how it works. Switzerland is a so-called direct democracy with a federal system. This means, in short, that citizens can vote, not only for the members of parliament, but also have the possibility to accept or decline any policy suggestion or change that’s proposed by the legislature by directly casting a vote. This is true for decisions on every political level. The executive is the Federal Council, which holds seven members from four different political parties. This is the equivalent of the president in systems like that of the United States for example. In the Parliament (the legislature) there is the upper house, the Council of States, and the lower house, the National Council. The former has 46 representatives (two per canton with the exception of six cantons which have only one) and the latter has 200 representatives spread across the parties proportionally to the number of votes they received from the public. The seats in the National Council are divided according to the cantons’ size. The seats in the Federal Council, on the other hand, are given to the four largest parties in the Parliament with the biggest three being given two seats each and the fourth biggest party getting one seat. Changes to the law or policies can be implemented on a communal, regional, or national scale and every citizen has the right to vote on all three levels.

What’s special about Switzerland is that it’s a multi-party system with several parties – with different political ideologies – in power at the same time. Political discussions are, therefore, mostly based on compromise. Nevertheless, there’s a strong right-wing bias in the Swiss government. The strongest party in government at the moment is the Swiss Populist Party (SVP) and they have continuously been the most represented and voted party in the last few decades. Two of the remaining three parties in the Federal Council are right, or at least right-leaning, as well. They are the Radical-Liberal Party (FDP) holding two seats and the Christian Democratic Party (CVP) with one seat, although the latter merged with another conservative party in 2019 to form the Middle party (Mitte). The Social Democrats (SP) are the only left-wing party that is among the strongest parties in power and they hold two seats in the Federal Council. There is one other fairly strong leftist party in the Parliament which is the Green Party (GP). The other parties with seats in Parliament but not in the Federal Council are rightist parties. Arguably, this distribution of power is the reason for the late adoption of feminist politics in Switzerland.

But what is it that makes right-wing parties stand out as a cause of women’s underrepresentation in politics? Some scholars argue that right-wing ideology is linked to a lack of female representation in politics. Right-wing parties have been found to exhibit more hostility towards feminism and less concern with gender equality. Populist parties often also have fewer women representatives than their leftist counterparts who generally favour equality within society. In Switzerland, the political representation of women has been at around 25% on all levels since 2000. At the same time, the support for and popularity of the right wing has been increasing. The largest party, the SVP, regards feminism and women’s issues as irrelevant to politics and life in general. This is interesting, because Waylen (2015) has highlighted that liberal democratic theory incorporates women differently into politics than men and the SVP exhibits strong neoliberal attitudes. In this theory, the individual is seen as masculine and, therefore, politics is built around lifestyles and issues regarding men. Other issues – such as those regarding women – are seen as non-political and not relevant to policymaking. What’s more, the SVP has a long history of opposing feminist policies. Ironically though, in the early 2000s, the party based its anti-immigrant propaganda on feminism when they promoted islamophobia in the name of protecting women’s rights. It’s obvious that they only support feminism if it helps to achieve one of their policy objectives (in this case restrictive immigration policies).

Additionally, they are the only party which has never had a female representative in the Federal Council – despite the fact that they have two seats – and have one of the lowest percentages of women representatives in government overall. The other right-wing parties have similar views on women as the SVP. Although the Christian Democrats support some feminist policies, their support is limited to those policies that emphasise the role of women in the Christian community. The conservative and liberal parties support some policies that give women greater economic equality, due to their focus on a liberal economy. However, these centre-right parties still have fewer women representatives than leftist parties. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats have historically shown the strongest support for women and women’s movements in Switzerland. They were the first party to support the female suffrage campaign and have the largest proportion of women representatives in government.

These inter-party differences are interesting, especially in the Swiss context where there is a direct democracy and there are multiple parties in power. This provides a unique basis to study the impact of right-wing ideology on women’s political representation. Intuitively one might say that political diversity helps to promote female representation, but in Switzerland’s case it seems to further hinder it. Swiss women were given full suffrage in 1971 when Norway granted women full suffrage as early as 1913, Denmark in 1915 and the UK in 1918. Not only did Swiss women get the right to vote much later than those in most other countries in the world, gender inequality and discrimination still persists today. This is the case in most countries, but, arguably, it’s more pronounced in Switzerland. In 2019, there was a National Women’s Strike where women (and some men) demonstrated for equal pay, the recognition of unpaid care work and governmental representation. Switzerland is also one of the only countries in Europe where the population voted to accept a burqa ban in 2021, thus restricting muslim women’s freedom. The regulations on maternity and paternity leave aren’t particularly generous either. Since 2003, mothers are entitled to 3.5 months of maternity leave and since 2019 fathers are allowed two weeks of leave (before 2019 it was two days). These terms are short compared to many other countries in Europe and highlights the lack of feminism in Swiss politics.

This raises many questions. If the prominence of right-wing ideologies is indeed the reason for these shortcomings, how do rightist parties affect women-friendly policies in other countries? And what about the left, what is their role in this? Perhaps the answer is more complex than one might think at first. Comparing the influence of different parties between countries is difficult for many reasons, not least because similar parties may have differing ideologies. However, it’s still important to acknowledge the role and impact of right-wing parties in promoting gender equality, especially given the increase in populism all over the world in recent years it’s particularly topical. Switzerland is, in my opinion, an excellent example of how seemingly progressive and ‘developed’ countries continue to have backward social and political structures. This is something to bear in mind and should be acknowledged more in all the various rankings comparing countries’ performance.

Header image by Dainis Graveris via Unsplash.com

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