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Swiss add momentum to Europe’s Greens

The Bundeshaus, or Swiss Parliament Building, towers over the Bundesplatz, or Federal Square, in Bern (ARÊTE/John Heilprin)

BERN, Switzerland — Voters in Switzerland’s national elections on Sunday delivered a major boost to left-leaning Greens who support urgent U.N.-led climate action and other environmental causes in parliament over the next four years.

A record number of more than 4,600 candidates, about 40 percent of them women, sought four-year terms in the 200-member National Council, parliament’s lower house, and 46-member Council of States, the upper house.

Recent student-led climate demonstrations that are part of a growing movement around the world played a role in Swiss balloting, as the Greens’ share of seats in the lower house nearly doubled to 13 percent, up from 7.1 percent in 2015, according to political research firm Gfs Bern.

The Green Liberals, who back environmental causes and libertarian socio-economic policies, notched 7.9 percent, up from 4.6 percent four years earlier, results on Sunday evening showed.

“These federal elections are elections for the climate. The result is clear: voters are calling for quick, social solutions to the climate crisis,” the Greens said in a statement after the elections.

“The Greens, therefore, call on all political forces to participate in a climate summit to which scientists will also be invited to jointly define an urgent climate strategy,” the party said. “The goal: a rapid and ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In extraordinary situations, extraordinary measures.”

By contrast, the anti-immigrant, right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party dropped to 25.8 percent of the vote, down from the 29.4 percent it garnered in 2015 as Europe’s refugee crisis took center stage.

Left-wing Social Democrats, who make up the second-biggest party in the lower house, got 16.6 percent, down from 18.8 percent in 2015. The center-right Liberals, the third biggest, won 15.3 percent, down from 16.4 percent.

But the center-right Christian Democrats, who won 11.4 percent, down slightly from 11.6 in 2015, also lost status as the fourth-biggest party in the lower house — overtaken by the Greens’ 13 percent.

That gave the Greens 28 seats in the lower house, a gain of 17. The Green Liberals won 16 seats there, a gain of nine. Meantime, the People’s Party got 54 seats, a loss of 11, and the Christian Democrats had 16 seats, a loss of nine.

Swiss citizens’ right to vote in local, cantonal and federal elections, and in frequent referendums and ballot initiatives is a source of pride among the nation’s 8.2 million inhabitants, of which 2 million are foreigners. Yet voter turnout in this year’s quadrennial federal elections was just 46 percent, typical for Switzerland. Fewer than half of all registered Swiss voters cast their ballots on average.

The Swiss parliament first gathered in 1848. The Swiss Constitution, establishing the Swiss federal state with powers divided between the Confederation, cantons and communities, was heavily influenced by the U.S. Constitution’s system of checks and balances and French Revolution ideals.

Europe’s climate concerns

The Greens also picked up at least two seats in the upper house, where the People’s Party and Social Democrats each lost at least one seat. But many of the races in that chamber remain in play. In slightly more than half of the nation’s 26 cantons, or states, candidates did not gain a majority of the votes in the upper house, sending those races into a runoff election.

All but one of the 246 seats in parliament were to be decided by Sunday’s federal elections; Appenzell Outer Rhodes canton is due to pick its one member of the upper house next April.

Traditionally, Switzerland’s so-called “magic formula” for sustaining political stability and direct democracy gives the four biggest political parties seats on the Federal Council, or Swiss Cabinet.

Seven federal councilors from those parties are in charge of overseeing the federal agencies, and they also take turns serving for one year as president, a largely ceremonial role. It remains to be seen if the Greens’ surging ranks in parliament will translate into a ministerial-level Cabinet post.

Ahead of the elections, climate demonstrators urged voters to elect candidates to Swiss parliament who would make climate and the environment top priorities. They were heard, loud and clear.

In late September, up to 100,000 people turned out for Switzerland’s largest-ever climate demonstration. They demanded that the world, including their own wealthy Alpine nation, fulfill the United Nations-brokered commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement that calls on nations to drastically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The boon for Switzerland’s Greens mirrored the outcome of elections elsewhere in Europe, though Switzerland is not a member of the European Union. In May elections, the Greens gained influence from voters in the 28-nation bloc clamoring for concrete, immediate action to fight global warming.

Europe’s left-leaning Greens picked up 17 seats in the European Parliament elections, making it that body’s fourth-largest political party with 69 seats. Its 2 percent gain gave it 9 percent of the 751-seat parliament. The Greens also surged to second place in Germany and to third place in France.

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