Mais im Bundeshuus (“Trouble in Parliament”, DOC 2003) // Consensus Democracy

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“In the autumn of 2001, a committee of 25 ministers assembled in the Swiss parliament building, the Bundeshaus. Their task was to draft the law on the use of genetic technology on animals and plants, the so-called “Gen-Lex” law. It is October 14th 2001, and the heroes of this film arrive at the Bundeshaus, one after the other.”

The heroes of Mais im Bundeshuus have a quest: to get a Gen-Lex law which suits them. Our protagonists come from a range of very different parties, forced into a “consensus democracy”, and they’re going to do their very best to impede each other, from the beginning to the bitter end.

The three major players: Maya, the feisty newbie minister for the Greens; Sepp, the gentleman farmer for the populist-right Swiss People’s Party; and Hannes, the brooding businessman for the ultra-neoliberal FDP.

Hannes and Maya. The camera isn’t allowed in the committee room, but discussion spills over into the breaks.

This review uses their first names, because that’s what we hear in the film – everyone’s on duzies or tutoy-ing, even with the director, Jean-Stéphane Bron. The intimacy achieved by the Swiss French Bron is amazing. For example, we might see a fidgety Hannes step out of the committee room, reaching for his cigarette after a particularly vicious sparring session. The director asks: “Alors?”, and Hannes wanders over. In whispering, conspiratorial German, he divulges everything that just happened.

They can’t resist; they are sucked in the moment, full of adrenaline and emotion but, in the committee room, forced to keep their strategizing mind in control. Bron’s role is to help them get it all off their chest.

We witness absurdly private conversations in that corridor. It could be Maya conspiring with a Socialist Party bigwig to manipulate Sepp; or Sepp and Hannes in a status war, laughing together in the locker-room style as they murder each other with their eyes.

Jean-Stéphane Bron said at the time that he wanted to make the political class “as human as possible”. He succeeded. By the end of the film, we’ve had access to impulsive reactions, childish gossip and hard-earned little victories. It’s an anathema to both populism, which demonizes an out-of-touch elite, and PR, which fabricates phoney humanity.

Animal-lover Sepp (SVP) and organic farmer Maya (Green): Agro-mance or pitchforks at dawn?

Worth a watch?

Mais im Bundeshuus totally works as a thriller: story beats are crystal clear, the editing entices us in and propels us through, the climax is a buzz. And it’s a properly emotional movie, befitting of the topic. The discussions both in and out of the committee room are hard, high-stakes political work, and the three main characters are swept up in them. The audience can’t help but be swept up, too.

Having said all that, foreigners watching this movie should know the gist of the five main party lines. It might also help to have experience of the Swiss group decision-making process in action, maybe at the workplace, or just on a night out.

If you’ve got that, Mais im Bundeshuus is an absolute must for learning about Switzerland. It’s one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (Intermediate).
Language: (deep breath) In the original version, the French director narrates and asks questions in his native language. Two featured politicians speak French, but the main three “stars” are all Swiss German. They speak Swiss German to each other and heavily accented High German to the camera. There are F, I and D subs available. Swiss Politics, Ladies and Gentlemen! (If you can find a version with English subs, let me know.)
Availability: It’s currently free on PlaySuisse, and I think on to stream for a small fee.

Swissness Lab Report: Consensus Democracy

(Spoilers of a sort to follow, don’t read on if you don’t want to know the vote results at the end of the movie.)

Let’s get the political ramifications of this film over and done with. This is the second movie on SMD after Der Verdingbub which would have influenced political outcomes via a popular initiative. Watching Sepp and Maya try in vain to resuscitate their moratorium, you want to reach out into the past and cry: You’ll get your wish!

The final parliament scenes were shot in June 2002. It took a year for for the accepted draft of the law to proceed through parliament; officially, it only came into practise in January 2004. But in the middle of all this, signature collection was started for a popular initiative: a five-year moratorium on planting GM foods and raising GM animals. Sound familiar? In Switzerland, even if parliament makes and implements a law, the people can have the final say.

In fact, the popular initiative on the moratorium was submitted on the very same weekend that the film was released! And the law itself came in with the film still in cinemas. Perfect timing for initiative supporters to draw attention to the law.

Unlike the reparation initiative in Der Verdingbub, this initiative did end up going to the vote. In the autumn of 2005, 56% of Swiss voters said “Yes” to a moratorium. So, in the end, Sepp and Maya got their wish.

The film seemed reasonably objective; each of the partisans is allowed space to stake their claim – and unwittingly expose the weaknesses of their argument. But you suspect the attention Mais im Bundeshuus drew would have given impetus to the moratorium camp. Crucially, two of the three “stars” wanted a moratorium. Maya and Sepp had the authenticity of being hard-working farmers, as well as star-crossed ideological opposites willing to lay aside their differences. The pro-Gen camp are repeatedly shown as losers.

Losers: Hannes schmoozing with Big Pharma lobbyists.

One of the wonderful pleasures of watching Mais in Bundeshuus is realizing that, having watched it back, no politician would willingly let the media get that close again. In that interview with Bron, he says he’d like to explore “the dark side and the light side” of each character, and by doing so “expose the contradictions of the era.” Perhaps the odd naivety of the would-be Machiavellis to the camera is one of these contradictions.

Maya Graf, then a greenhorn in parliament, admitted as much in an NZZ article ten years later – none of us knew what we were doing; Bron was incredible at getting us to trust him; we were all shocked when we first saw it.

Because there are so few scenes shot outside the Bundeshaus, there are very few visual clues that this is a different era to 2021. Okay, Hannes’ habit of chain-smoking indoors raises a smile, and occasionally a young version of current Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga come into shot, pulling strings:

It’s easy to forget the biggest clue is actually lying on that pillar between Graf and Sommaruga: obsolete technology. Because the smartphone as we know it didn’t exist.

Nobody here is a digital native; the “transitional” MySpace and MSN phase of social media was taking place among teens like me at the time Mais im Bundeshuus was filming. As politicians, Maya, Hannes and the rest would have been acutely aware that their image in the public eye is crucial; but they lack that mastery of the audiovisual which by now is par for the course.

But what of political spin doctors? After all, filming took place in 2001-2002, five years after Blair’s rise to power. Where were the first wave of Swiss Alastair Campbells, ready to tell Hannes his footballing metaphors really weren’t as clever as he thought it was, and get him to stop smoking miserably?

I suspect, and here we get to the core of this Swissness-analysis, that it has to do with the nature of consensus politics. This means something like: “In our decision-making processes, we try and take into account multiple points of view, and avoid neglecting minorities where possible.”

How does this translate in the Swiss case?

Proportional representation at every level of society. To get your wish, you’re forced to work with other parties. For example, the committee to draft the Gen-Lex law is made up of 25 parliamentarians in proportion to in the National Council. Even the Swiss presidency is a seven-headed dragon (one of the current heads being the above-pictured Sommaruga).

Federalism means more chance of ministers breaking the party line. In the film, we see this when half of the CVP and a sizeable minority of the SVP do not vote according to their party’s preference, because cantonal differences in opinion have a greater influence than the more centralized machines of e.g. the UK. Maya (anti-Gentechnik) and Hannes (pro-Gentechnik) knew they had a genuine chance of swinging voters from other parties to their side.

No leader operating alone at executive, legislative, or judiciary level; no “jobs for life”. This contrasts with a Prime Minister or President position, and also with the “lifelong” roles in US and UK politics such as the House of Lords or the Supreme Court. Power is more diffuse, and there are more opportunities to hold power-wielders to account. Lesser-known back-benchers like Sepp Kunz have a genuine shot at being influential on topics they’re passionate about.

Sepp at an event on his farm (in his family since the 1500s!).

The voting population is “Sovereign”, and has the last word. Even when the law on genetic technology was voted in during the film, the voting population of Switzerland could still have said “No thanks!” and raised 50,000 signatures for a referendum. Alternatively, as happened here, a popular initiative of 100,000 signatures may call for a new change to the law. All politicians need to take this into account when proposing, drafting, debating and implementing laws.

Because of all this, change in Switzerland takes a very long time. To put this into perspective, the “Gen-Lex” law portrayed in the film was initiated in 1997. It took till 2004 for the law to be implemented, and another 1.5 years for the population to have the final say on the moratorium.

To sum up, my main argument as to why the stars of the documentary are not as media savvy as you might expect is: They calculated it wasn’t worth it. In theory, Hannes, Maya and Sepp didn’t have as much to gain from “playing” the media as their equivalents in more centralized, less directly democratic nations. They didn’t have to appeal to as wide a range of voters; their actions had a little less weight, because various other mechanisms keep the laws in check; and national attention from a hit documentary was seemingly not as important as it it would have been in, say, the UK and the US.

Probably, they’d calculated incorrectly. Maya Graf became something of a parliamentary star off the back of the film and in 2012 was voted the first Green Party member to be President of the Nationalrat. Sepp Kunz, meanwhile, became Party President of SVP Luzern in 2009.

Most of all, though, the politicians’ naivety in Mais im Bundeshuus betrays a vacuum for a new kind of politics, one which explicitly harnesses the audiovisual as a tool for sensationalism and polemics. The documentary’s release in the latter half of 2003 coincided with a crucial moment in recent Swiss politics: the election to the Federal Council of Christoph Blocher, the infamous nationalist firebrand.

A crisis in Swiss consensus democracy ensued. Blocher set up the SVP as an opposition party; orchestrated hugely successful PR campaigns for socially conservative policies; focalized power on himself (sample poster: “Make Blocher stronger! Vote SVP!”); and used his position as infamous media star to great success. Blocher was the Helvetic Donald Trump, trying to swashbuckle through the checks and balances of Swiss consensus democracy, and his ubiquity in the mid-2000s would coincide with the rise and rise of social media.

Swiss politics would never be the same again. And a documentary as intimate with politicians as Mais im Bundeshuus will never get made again.

Here’s a short and interesting RTS interview with Bron about the success of the film (French).
And a short and interesting NZZ interview with Maya Graf on its 10th anniversary (German).

Translation note:
I changed the translation of the title from “Corn in Parliament” (the literal translation of Mais im Bundeshuus) to “Trouble in Parliament” (the translation opting for the other side of the metaphorical wordplay). This was recommended to me by two different Swiss friends (although internet translations say “Corn”). (The full title, Mais im Bundeshuus – Le génie helvétique, contains a rather cheesy French play on words, with Le génie génetique, meaning genetic engineering. So it’s “Helvetic engineering”. For several years having heard about this film I thought it was something to do with an Aladdin-style genie.)

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