🇨🇭The magic formula: Why nobody knows the head of Switzerland


The Story

A person you don't know. 

Who is this?

Guy Parmelin. He has been the head of the Swiss government, called President of Switzerland, since 1 January 2021.

I didn't know that. 

Don't worry. Most people outside Switzerland don't.  

Tell me more. 

Parmelin is 61 years old and a member of the Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC). Even though he is the incumbent of the most important political position of the wealthiest country in the world (measured by average per-capita wealth), his Wikipedia entry is short. 

Why is that?

It is due to the unique system of government in Switzerland, called "Direktorialdemokratie". 

Never heard of. Explain. 

What is well know about the political system in Switzerland is that the country is a direct democracy. Alongside the usual voting rights accorded in democracies, the Swiss people can also vote on specific issues. The latest referendum in September was about same-sex marriage, which the Swiss voters overwhelmingly backed. What is less known is how the government is elected.  


The Swiss government (called: Swiss Federal Council) is elected by the Federal Assembly of Switzerland members. So far, so typical. The election procedure, though, is guided not only by legal requirements set down in the Swiss constitution but also by informal understandings between major parties. This informal procedure is called "Zauberformel" (or magic formula).

What is magic about it?

The four major Swiss parties (the Free Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Swiss People's Party and the Social Democratic Party) mutually concede the right to a representation. The weighting in the Federal Council roughly corresponds to each party's ballot in the general election. Since the government (called "Bundesrat") consists of seven members, the parties have agreed on a 2-2-2-1 distribution with two seats each for the three strongest parties and one for the fourth. This distribution – called the Zauberformel – made the Swiss government one of the most continuous democratic ones worldwide. 

Which parties are currently running the government?

  • Free Democratic Party: two seats

  • Social Democratic Party: two seats

  • Swiss People's Party: two seats

  • The Centre: one seat

And how is the president elected?

Not by the voters nor the parliament but by the government itself. The government chooses its head. And he or she is only elected for one year. That's why nobody outside of Switzerland knows Guy Parmelin. 

The upside. 

Swiss politics are about the matter, not the show. Switzerland is proof that even nowadays, democracies can function well with little personalisation and polarisation.