The Swiss Federal Presidency has a rich and varied history. During the first difficult decades of the federal state, the office was awarded to federal councillors with particularly strong leadership skills, but in the 1890s the system of rotation was introduced.
No concentration of power
The members of the cantonal governments who drew up the Swiss Constitution were pragmatic thinkers and prepared to make compromises, according to the Swiss Historical Dictionary. Certainly they did not waste any time in getting down to work: they made the most of the atmosphere of political change in spring 1848 and within a few weeks drew up the federal state’s very first constitution. They wanted to avoid the concentration of too much power in too few hands, and certainly did not want just one person to hold too many executive powers. The federal presidency was shaped accordingly and the term of office limited to one year.
Two record holders
The first president of the Swiss Confederation in 1848 and 1849 was Jonas Furrer, a liberal from Zurich. During the rest of the 19th century it was mainly the particularly influential federal councillors who were elected president. Record holders Karl Schenk (BE) and Emil Welti (AG) each held the office six times. Both were members of the federal government for a very long time: Welti 24 years, and Schenk 31, making him the longest-standing federal councillor in history.
System of rotation since the 1890s
The current system of rotation, whereby the longest-standing member of the government becomes vice president of the Federal Council and then a year later president of the Swiss Confederation, did not become established until the 1890s. Prior to this the Federal Assembly elected the most admired federal councillors as president. Those who were less popular with the members of parliament had, in some cases, to wait a long time, for example Willhelm Matthias Naeff from St Gallen, who, despite sitting on the Federal Council for 27 years, was president only in 1853. Only once did an elected president not take up office: Victor Ruffy from the canton of Vaud, who was elected President of the Swiss Confederation for 1870, died on 29 December 1869. A sitting president has never resigned from office, although Wilhelm Hertenstein from the canton of Zurich died in office in 1888.
Also foreign minister
In the first ten years following the foundation of the federal state, it was usual for the president to head the Political Department, forerunner to the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1888 the two offices were separated. From 1897 to 1920 the two offices were again held by one person.
Eight female presidents
There have been eight female presidents to date. Ruth Dreifuss was the first woman to be elected president in 1999. She was followed by Micheline Calmy-Rey (2007 and 2011), Doris Leuthard (2010 and 2017), Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (2012) and Simonetta Sommaruga (2015 and 2020).
In the early years of the federal state, elections for the presidency were often rather chaotic. In the summer of 1858, Friedrich Frey-Herosé from the canton of Aargau was deemed to have been elected – until a complaint was lodged and a commission set up to look into the election. This ultimately led to Jakob Stämpfli from the canton of Bern being declared president for 1859. In its report the commission noted, among other things, that ballot papers had been disposed of in waste-paper bins without due care. According to the Federal Gazette, the commission put the fault down to the “haste of individual vote counters”, stating that there was no evidence of fraudulent intent. Friedrich Frey-Herosé, who was Jakob Stämpfli’s rival for the post, was elected president in 1860.
Stefano Franscini was a member of the Federal Council from 1848 until his death in 1857 and made a great contribution to the Confederation. In the 19th century, the Confederation was very poor and viewed with considerable suspicion by its conservative neighbours due to its progressive constitution. Franscini was an avid gatherer of data who organised Switzerland’s first population census and was involved in the drafting of numerous important draft laws. Stefano Francisini was an introvert and became increasingly hard of hearing with age, as such, the Federal Assembly did not consider him to be presidential; he was also a controversial figure in his own canton. However, this did not diminish his legacy.
Wilhelm Hertenstein from Zurich was head of the Military Department when he stood for election as president in 1888. At the time it was customary for the president to also head the Political Department, the forerunner of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). Wilhelm Hertenstein, a former forester, did not believe that his French – the main language of diplomacy at the time – was good enough for the role. It was therefore decided to end the link between the presidency and the Department of Foreign Affairs; Wilhelm Hertenstein was thus able to remain at the Military Department after his election as president. His year in office was tragically interrupted when he fell seriously ill in November 1888 and died after having his lower leg amputated. He is the only president to date not to have completed his term of office.
In 1891, Josef Zemp, a Catholic conservative from Lucerne was elected to the Federal Council. It was the first time that a politician who did not belong to the Radical parliamentary group had been elected to the government. This concession was made by the Radical parliamentary group, which held sway in the young state, in a bid to put an end to a government crisis. They let it be known though that the newcomer would have to learn the ropes before being entrusted with the presidency. The seniority principle therefore established itself as an unwritten rule.
In 1918. Gustave Ador from Geneva was elected president for 1919 just a few months after his election to the Federal Council. The reasons for this can be found in foreign policy. The mere fact that Gustave Ador, who was over 70 and belonged to the small Liberal party, was even elected federal councillor, could be understood as a signal to France and Britain, after the pro-German sympathies shown by the Swiss government and Foreign Minister Arthur Hoffmann in particular, during the First World War. The election of Gustave Ador, a long-standing friend of France, proved to be beneficial after the war and the defeat of the German Empire. Indeed it was thanks to him that Geneva was chosen as the seat of the League of Nations, precursor to the United Nations. At the end of 1919, Gustave Ador stepped down from the Federal Council to once again become president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In absolute terms, two social democrats from north-western Switzerland share first place: Hans-Peter Tschudi (BS) and Willi Ritschard (SO) received 213 votes from the United Federal Assembly in 1970 and 1978 respectively. During the 1970s presidents generally achieved good to very good results. It is difficult to compare results though. The National Council has only had 200 seats since 1967; before that the number was sometimes significantly lower. Nevertheless, a sensational result was achieved at the turn of the last century when Federal Councillor Ernst Brenner, FDP from Basel, received 186 of 192 possible votes at the time (96.9%) for his second term as president in 1908. Adolf Deucher, a left-leaning liberal from Thurgau, also enjoyed a landslide victory with 173 out of a possible 180 votes (96.1%) in his election as president for 1903.
Last modification 11.12.2020