Should Switzerland’s constitution demand gender equality in government? This is the question being considered in Bern.
Currently, the constitution only demands an equitable representation of Switzerland’s regions and linguistic groups. This text has a long history and is focused on ensuring cohesion across Switzerland’s diverse regional and linguistic patchwork. Gender has no regional dimension.
In September 2017, Raphaël Comte, a member of the Council of States, Switzerland’s upper house, put forward a motion to add government gender balance to Switzerland’s constitution. He argues the constitution should mirror the nation’s values and political priorities and thinks gender representation should sit alongside region and language.
Comte, a 38 year old lawyer from Neuchâtel (PLR/FDP), recommends adding a gender balance requirement to the constitution without specifying how it would work, leaving open the possibility that any addition is more symbolic than prescriptive.
A commission looked at his proposal and voted against it by 9 votes to 4 in January 2018. They questioned what would happen if gender balance came into conflict with regional or linguistic representation. Which requirements would trump others? In addition, they had concerns about opening the gate to an ever expanding list of conflicting group identities, the next one, for example, could be age.
Political party representation is another dimension that could come into conflict with gender. The so-called magic formula, which aims for Federal Council (Switzerland’s executive) representation of the main political parties, roughly in line with their share of seats in the Federal Assembly (National Council + Council of States), might become harder to achieve if there was a gender balance objective, particularly in relation to parties with few women.
Currently two of Switzerland’s seven Federal Councillors are women, Doris Leuthard (PDC/CVP) and Simonetta Sommaruga (PS/SP). From 2010 to 2012, four of the seven were women.
Last week the Council of States, Switzerland’s upper house voted in favour of Comte’s plan, with 20 votes in favour and 17 against. Géraldine Savary (PS/SP) who voted in favour, said: “politics remains a man’s world”. Comte insists that the initiative is not about creating quotas. “There is nothing in this initiative that restricts parliamentary freedom or constrains voting”, he said.
Speaking for the commission, Peter Föhn (UDC/SVP), said it isn’t essential for national cohesion and could open the door to other criteria such as age. He thinks it’s up to political parties to put forward more women and not something that should be included in the constitution.
Now Switzerland’s National Council (parliament) will consider the plan.