Swiss politics is increasingly dominated by an urban-rural divide

According to Koseki, Swiss people in the area stretching from Geneva to Bern and St. Gallen increasingly share interests. © Thinkstockphotos

According to Koseki, Swiss people in the area stretching from Geneva to Bern and St. Gallen increasingly share interests. © Thinkstockphotos

Over the past 10 years, the divide between French- and German-speaking Switzerland has played less of a role in politics than the country’s urban-rural divide. This is the conclusion of an EPFL PhD student, whose analysis brought together urbanism, voting results and big data.

Switzerland has become one big metropolis connected by its train lines. The denizens of this metropolis have much in common and often vote the same way. Indeed, despite widespread perceptions, the divide between French- and German-speaking Switzerland has been fading gradually over the past 10 years. At least that is the conclusion that Shin Alexandre Koseki, a PhD student at EPFL, has come to.

Koseki, a researcher in urban sciences, specialized in mapping the results of Swiss federal votes. His aim? To track evolving patterns in the country’s political cohesion. Working in the Chôros Laboratory, which is headed by Jacques Lévy, Koseki came up with a way of showing how the Swiss vote depending on where they live. To do this, he collected and compiled the results of all federal votes held over the past 30 years, commune by commune. “The novel thing about his approach is this broad historical spectrum,” said Lévy. “The ability to draw on such a huge amount of data meant that new questions could be asked.”

A growing polarization

Koseki, who is from Canada, can provide details on the intricacies of Swiss direct democracy over the past 30 years, backed by facts and figures. “In the 1980s, Swiss politics was marked by extensive fragmentation between language regions and cantons,” said Koseki. “The things people cared about varied widely from Geneva to Zurich. In the 1990s, the landscape changed and cities in the German-speaking region began voting alike. The same thing happened in the cities and countryside in French-speaking Switzerland. Since the year 2000, however, local populations in all regions have increasingly voted along the same lines. The divide between French- and German-speaking Switzerland has been losing relevance over the past 10 years.” A growing polarization is now apparent between, on one hand, the major Swiss cities, French-speaking Switzerland, Ticino and part of the Grisons in eastern Switzerland and, on the other hand, the suburbs and countryside in the German-speaking region. And as we will see below, Ticino has become a bit of a wildcard in recent years.

A new kind of map

To illustrate his approach, Koseki pulls out some maps that he developed with the Chôros Laboratory. These maps show the population of the communes and the extent to which they agree on voting issues. From 2003 to 2014, a huge green area stretches from Geneva to St. Gallen (see image 4). This is proof of a burgeoning social and political alignment in Switzerland. “People commute more, there’s more interaction between people, and Bern is not as far away as it used to be,” said Koseki. “People living in the big cities thus share the same interests and even the same values.”

From metropolis to megalopolis

“We are seeing that the Switzerland of 2016 has become one big metropolis,” said Koseki. “Broadly speaking, the political preferences of city dwellers tend to converge, and from a geographical perspective, Swiss politics is increasingly characterized by consensualism rather than regionalism.” Lévy backs this assertion, but goes even further: “People are now talking about the Lake Geneva metropolis. But looking at the Geneva-St. Gallen corridor, one could even speak of a Swiss megalopolis that refers to a likeminded urban grouping with extensive links between individuals.”

Koseki based his work on network analysis. Just as you can tell a lot about someone by their friends, this approach allowed the researcher to ascertain political links between different local populations while collecting information on how these links change over time. “Through this approach, we can see, for example, that the people of Zurich have historically been in political agreement with those of Bern, Basel and Winterthur,” said Koseki. “It also reveals who the residents of Zurich disagree with most, which happens to be a commune in Schwyz Canton.”

Ever more divisions

In Switzerland, divisions die hard. Koseki reports, for example, that suburbs in the German-speaking region disagree most frequently with the big cities. The same is true for rural communes, whose voting patterns differ even more from those of the cities but are similar to each other’s. Another exception: Ticino. “This is a relatively unpredictable canton that will vote against ‘mass immigration’ yet in favor of social measures, as we saw in the last federal vote,” said Koseki. Says Lévy: “Ticino is different from the other language regions of Switzerland in that it does not have a large cosmopolitan city. There is no sharp contrast in attitudes across the canton, which thus behaves very differently from the other language regions.”

Is it time to tweak Switzerland’s direct democracy?

What should be done about these results? For Koseki, since Switzerland’s large cities tend to align on federal votes, they could come up with more joint projects and should be able to better defend their interests. “The results show that our understanding of the regional dimension of individual and collective political action is outdated,” he adds.

Koseki’s research shakes the very foundations of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy. “This type of map challenges the rationale behind the double-majority system, because the actual weighting of major urban centers is not represented in federal votes.” Lévy concurs: “The cities could try to make the most of their similarities and political interests, which are downplayed by the current canton-based system.”