Constitutionally, the title of president in Switzerland is only ceremonial. All seven members of the Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive, have equal power and are required to govern by harmonious consensus, a principle known as collegiality. This means that all federal councillors are expected to present a united front to the public even when they don’t agree with a decision. This week, a number of politicians and commentators accused Ueli Maurer, a federal councillor and member of the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP), of breaking the principle of collegiality.
Over the weekend, photographs surfaced of Maurer posing with the group Freiheitstrychler wearing one of the group’s T-shirts. Freiheitstrychler, which translates to freedom cowbells, describes itself as a defender of freedom. It has protested against many of the measures introduced by the Federal Council to manage the spread of Covid-19, pitting itself against Switzerland’s seven-member executive.
According to the group, it was founded in the autumn of 2020 in response to a belief that Switzerland’s constitutional freedoms were being trampled on by some politicians and institutions. The group, which marches with cow bells has been present at many of the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests across Switzerland. It was a vocal supporter of a vote to overturn the government’s Covid-19 law on 13 June 2021, a referendum that failed when 60% of voters supported the government’s laws. However, majorities voted to reverse the law in 7 cantons where the group is active. Uri (55%), Schwytz (59%), Obwalden (57%), Nidwalden (51%), Glarus (51%), Appenzell Ausserrhoden (53%), Appenzell Innerrhoden (61%) and Thurgau (50%) all had majorities against the government’s Covid-19 laws.
Some view Ueli Maurer’s public display of solidarity with the group as an affront to the constitutional principle of governing by harmonious consensus. They argue that by publicly aligning himself with a group that opposes a number of key Federal Council decisions he is publicly demonstrating his disagreement with his colleagues, an act at odds with collegiality.
At a Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP) conference in March, Maurer said that as a Federal Council member he sometimes felt he was a member of a sect that he was trying to escape.
Speaking to RTS, Roger Nordman (PS/SP) described Maurer’s behaviour as a gross violation of the principle of collegiality, accusing him of sabotaging the Federal Council’s vaccination campaign, effectively extending the crisis.
Céline Amaudruz (UDC/SVP) responded by saying that other members of the Federal Council were also guilty of violating the principle and that we should not assign more blame to Ueli Maurer than to others. Jean-Luc Addor (UDC/SVP), told RTS that he believes that Maurer did not violate the principle of collegiality by speaking of liberty and that he has sent a strong signal to those in the country concerned about it. Later in the conversation he said collegiality should not prevent the airing of political views and that the reaction to wearing the T-shirt is a storm in a teacup.
Balthasar Glättli (Greens), said he thinks Maurer is inflaming divisions in society and that posing with Freiheitstrychler goes further than airing political views because it demonstrates solidarity with a group that is legitimising certain behaviour. Glättli thinks Maurer needs to take the responsibility of being a federal councillor more seriously. In his view, the responsibility of being a federal councillor stands above politics.