Fabio Wasserfallen


Swiss Politics

As a Swiss political scientist, I was not only socialized in the Swiss political system, I am also intrigued by its many fascinating aspects. My research analyzes federalism and direct democracy – the two most prominent features of the Swiss polity. In regard to federalism, the fiscal dimension is of particular interest to me because taxation and spending are predominantly in the hands of the cantons. My work investigates the politics of inter-cantonal fiscal equalization and the drivers of tax competition between cantons (which overlaps with the research on interdependence; see below). Among others, my analyses show how institutionalized cooperation between the cantons attenuates tax competition and how cantons reach agreements in zero-sum negotiations on fiscal transfers that reduce the fiscal imbalances among the cantons (which is of relevance for European integration; see above). As far as direct democracy is concerned, I am studying, together with Lucas Leemann, how policy outcomes are shaped by both the majority will of the electorate and the preferences of the political elite. A major challenge for the empirical analysis of how direct democracy interacts with voters’ preferences is the estimation of public opinion on the cantonal level. To that end, we apply and advance multilevel and post-stratification methods (MRP). As an offshoot of this research, we also developed a method for deriving public opinion estimates through online surveys. Our public opinion survey analysis for initiatives and referendums that we have published since January 2014, in collaboration with the most-read media outlet in Switzerland, are fairly precise (for more, see here).

European Integration

Broadly speaking, I study the institutional complexity of the EU’s political system and the main integration dynamics. I have, for example, analyzed how the legal–political nexus shapes integration by analyzing the interaction between the jurisprudence of the ECJ and European policy making. My more recent work focuses on fiscal, economic, and monetary integration. The creation of the economic and monetary union (EMU) marks a historically unprecedented level of economic integration among nation-states; while, in comparison, political integration still remains modest. I try to understand the roots and the consequences of this imbalanced institutional setting. Building on my published work on political and economic integration, I am currently coordinating, together with Sonja Puntscher Riekmann, the Horizon 2020 research project „EMU choices“ that is devoted to the study of member states governments’ preferences for different fiscal, economic, and political integration proposals that go – more or less – beyond the current imbalanced institutional setting. Concretely, we analyze the positions of each member state for proposals on fiscal equalization measures, shared sovereign debts, tighter fiscal and budgetary oversight, institutional reforms, and the like. The 4-year project started in June 2015 and is funded by the European Commission (EUR 2.3 million). This research grant allows us to conduct interviews (in Brussels and all member states) and carry out extensive document analysis for systematic data collection on member states governments’ preferences. A consortium of distinguished European integration scholars from 9 European universities executes the project (for more on the project, see here). 

Policy Diffusion / Interdependence

Diffusion scholars study how policy making is conditioned by prior policy choices made in other countries or other sub-national units. In other words, we are interested in interdependence and analyze, for example, how governments compete with one another, learn from best practice, and emulate policies from powerful countries. The perspective of the diffusion/interdependence literature provides an important corrective to the dominant comparative approach in political science that usually analyzes countries as independent units — and thus ignores that, in an ever more integrated and interdependent world, policy makers do not act in isolation from decisions made elsewhere. The theoretical approaches and empirical methods of diffusion can be applied to the analysis of diverse topics, which is very attractive, if you share – like me – a broad and genuine interest in political, economic, and social processes. In addition, the diffusion topic is productive for interdisciplinary exchange. As a Fung Global Fellow at Princeton University, I had the privilege to discuss the disciplinary overlaps and differences in diffusion research in depth with historians, sociologists, and other political scientists during the 2014/15 academic year. My diffusion/interdependence articles analyze, among others, socialization effects and contextual variation in tax competition and learning dynamics during the Arab Spring. Currently, I am working on two papers that distinctively focus on global policy diffusion processes and democratic institutions, studying the diffusion of inflation targeting and the global abolition of the death penalty.