Our blog only rarely covers Switzerland – in fact, it has been only been covered in four of our over 1000 blog posts to date (three of which were cross-country comparisons). This is largely due to the fact that the Swiss presidency differs considerably from the other presidencies discussed here. Rather than the incumbent of a unipersonal office, the Swiss president is the chairperson ‘Federal Council’ – a seven-person collegial executive elected for a fixed four-year term in a joint session of the houses of parliament – and rotates annually among the members of the council. As first among equals, Swiss presidents are effectively the country’s highest representative; yet, they have no authority over their fellow councillors. Given that the Federal Council is a voluntary all-party/grand coalition (its party composition is determined by a largely stable ‘magic formula’) and acts ‘in corpore’ (as one body), it is often presented as a unitary actor. However, a range of issues and discussion have highlighted a very interesting phenomenon in this respect – the lack of coordination between different councillors and the difficulties of the collegial presidency to speak with one voice.
Newly elected Federal Council president Ueli Maurer irritated national and audiences at the World Economic Forum in Davos two weeks ago when he remarked that the Swiss government had “long since dealt with the Khashoggi case. We have agreed to resume the financial dialogue and to normalise relations [with Saudi Arabia].” This assessment was however not shared by his fellow councillors, and particularly those leading the foreign relations and trade departments were quick to stress that relations had all but normalised (and that trade restrictions remain in place). At the same time, the finance department, led by Maurer himself, is continuing its ‘finance dialogue’ with Saudia Arabia. Thus, Maurer’s remarks not only highlight a lack of coordination within departments, but also between the council and its highest representative.
A similar pattern emerged with regard to the new framework treaty between Switzerland and the European Union. The results of five-year long negotiations had been presented in December 2018, eliciting contradictory comments from federal councillors – while Ingazio Cassis (heading the foreign affairs department) praised the draft agreement, his colleagues criticised the deal and the Federal Council failed to present a common position (this had already been an issue in early 2018 during before the last phase of negotiations). Eventually, Maurer called for re-negotiations, despite clear signals from the EU commission that there would be no leeway to renegotiate the current agreement.
Last, parliamentarians have increasingly voiced their discontent with the lack of coordination among councillors and their government departments in important areas. Most recently, this was illustrated the lack of a common political and economic strategy on investments from and engagement with China – although promised over ten years ago, policy differs greatly among the departments which hold various responsibilities in this regard.
These examples show the problems of coordination in a collegial presidency in which there is only a first among equals, yet none above (primus inter pares vs primus supra pares). Nevertheless, none of these is (yet) sufficient to change the council’s modus operandi. Nevertheless, the new EU treaty may force councillors to adopt a more cooperative approach – both among each other as well as between the Federal Council and parliament. To date, such questions as well as that of political leadership of Federal Councillors has yet received little scholarly attention. Although the Swiss presidency is relatively unique (the closest comparable example are the Captains Regent in San Marino), the above examples demand further investigation and could well mirror patterns of intra-executive conflict in other regime types.
 Although the president is formally elected by parliament, the order of rotation is strictly based on the length of time that councillors served on the Federal Council.
This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 4 February 2019