In the early 1890s, a handful of Swiss cantons (states) held the first public elections in Europe to truly use proportional representation (PR). The success of these early votes meant that over the next few decades, PR was gradually adopted by more and more cantons and eventually the national level. Today, PR is the overwhelming norm across the continent. But why exactly did those early cantons make the change, how did this lead to PR’s nationwide adoption and what can we learn from how Switzerland got PR?
The federal nature of Switzerland meant that the various stages of democratisation occurred at different times across the country, but by the mid-19th century, popular elections were taking place at all levels of government. These elections were conducted using multi-round majority voting systems in various mixtures of constituencies that elected one or more people each.
The question of representation was particularly important in Switzerland due to its status as a country of minorities – with divisions along religious and linguistic lines appearing in various combinations in different cantons. When it came to the task of representing these various minorities, majority-based voting systems were wholly unsuitable.
Bottom-up democratic reforms
This was particularly true at the canton level, with cantonal council elections usually producing distorted results, some of which were so disproportionate as to cause outbreaks of political unrest.
In response to one such outbreak in Geneva in 1842, French philosopher Victor Considerant devised a system of proportional representation as a solution – criticising majority voting systems for conflating representation of citizens and the principle of decision-making by a majority. His proposals were not accepted by the council’s ruling majority.
Unrest again broke out in 1864 after the Radical Genevan government voided the election victory of the opposing Independent Party. This convinced Swiss theologian Ernest Naville to found the Reformist Association of Geneva to campaign for PR. Naville’s diagnosis was that the root of Swiss political unrest was the unfair power given to winning parties by majority voting systems.
First steps to proportional representation
Despite Geneva being the centrepoint of Swiss debates on PR, the first canton to introduce PR was the Italian-speaking Ticino.
The religious Conservatives had gained power in 1875, benefitting from an electoral map that was biased against the anti-clerical Liberals. A series of distorted results culminated in the March 1889 election at which, despite an almost even number of votes, twice as many Conservatives were elected than Liberals.
1889 Ticino Cantonal Election
The aftermath of the result saw an outbreak of political violence and order had to be restored by the federal government. To solidify the peace, it was decided that future elections would take place using PR to ensure fair results.
Proportional representation spreads
Ticino’s adoption of PR in 1891 calmed tensions and worked much in the way that its advocates had expected. Thus, it wasn’t long before it spread to other cantons. Geneva adopted it the following year and, by the end of the decade, the cantons of Neuchâtel, Zug, Solothurn and Schwyz, as well as the city of Bern, had also switched to proportional voting systems.
This success spurred reformists to turn their focus to the national level. PR had been debated numerous times in parliament from the 1870s onwards, but, in 1900, an unusual alliance of Social Democrats and Conservatives came together to introduce an initiative in favour of PR. In the subsequent referendum, PR unfortunately lost by 59% to 41%, though with 48% of cantons in favour.
Despite the setback, the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Lucerne, as well as Zurich city council switched to PR over the next decade. Supporters from all parties came together in a new Action Committee led by Social Democrat Fritz Studer. Against the opposition of the majority-holding Free Democrats, the Action Committee proposed another initiative and, in 1910, a second referendum was held. PR again lost, but by a narrow margin of 52% to 48% and with the majority of cantons now in favour.
The final push for PR
By 1917, ten cantons covering around half the population used PR for cantonal elections, with more using it for municipal elections. This made the rhetoric of PR’s opponents increasingly difficult to reconcile with the favourable experiences that increasing numbers of voters had with PR systems. What the Action Committee needed was a trigger for another referendum – the 1917 federal election gave them exactly that.
1917 Swiss Election Results
The Free Democrats were able to retain their parliamentary majority despite a significant drop in their support to just 41% of the vote. However, the second-placed Social Democrats, who more than tripled their vote in their best result to date, won just a single extra seat – taking only 11% of seats on 31% of votes. If that vote-to-seat disparity wasn’t enough, the Social Democrat grouping was less than half that of the Conservatives, who won just 16% of the vote.
The result was enough to get a third referendum, held on 13th October 1918. Switzerland voted by a clear margin of 67% to 33% in favour of PR and a Party List system was subsequently adopted, with the cantons serving as the constituencies. The subsequent election was brought forwards, with Switzerland holding its first nationwide PR election on 26th October 1919. PR has remained in place ever since and is now regarded as an integral part of Swiss democracy.
Finishing the rollout?
Most of the cantons yet to switch did so in the following decade. Grisons, one of the last holdouts, used PR for the first time last May. Only three cantons are yet to switch – two use hybrid systems where urban members are elected by PR and rural ones by majority, while the ultraconservative half-canton of Appenzell-Innerrhoden (population: 16,000) is the last to solely use a majority voting system (though this is the same half-canton that was forced to stop denying women the right to vote in cantonal elections in 1990!).
Switzerland shows how successful implementation of PR at regional or local levels demonstrates its clear benefits to voters and deadens the influence of anti-PR rhetoric. Once voters are familiar with the positive realities of PR, it becomes harder and harder for them to tolerate the misrepresentation caused by non-proportional systems.
While it may have been nearly 30 years between Ticino’s implementation of PR in 1891 and its first national use in 1919, the PR-elected devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales are nearly halfway through their third decade – and PR has clearly been a success there…
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