At the end of his first year in Switzerland’s consensus-driven cabinet, Justice Minister Christoph Blocher remains as divisive and controversial a figure as ever.
Opinions differ about his achievements in government, but allies and enemies alike agree that he has changed the complexion of government.
A former businessman, the billionaire and veteran parliamentarian was elected to the Swiss government in December 2003, after his rightwing Swiss People’s Party triumphed in parliamentary elections two months earlier.
His election changed the traditional make-up of the cabinet, prompting hopes and fears about what it would mean for Switzerland’s multi-party government.
Twelve months on Kurt Imhof, a sociologist at Zurich University, has no doubts about Blocher’s impact. “We are facing a divided cabinet,” he told swissinfo.
He said the unprecedented number of leaked stories about alleged conflict within the cabinet would erode confidence in the government with far-reaching consequences for society and the economy.
“It was naïve to think that Blocher could be tamed by integrating him into the seven-member cabinet,” said Imhof.
Blocher has not shied away from controversial statements and actions, such as inviting another cabinet member to step down—not done in Switzerland—and trying to force through drastic spending cuts.
As a cabinet minister he is expected to support government policy and abide by the principle of collegiality. But he has flouted cabinet rules on a number of occasions, triggering heated debates and angry reactions.
Better than expected
Blocher has admitted that he was not sure what kind of a welcome he would receive in the cabinet.
“At first I thought they would not accept me, or any of my policies,” he told swissinfo. “But this is far from the truth. In general, the situation is better than expected.”
He also downplayed apparent conflicts in the cabinet and claimed to have encouraged more open discussion and to have broken a few taboos.
Blocher said he was committed to the system of consensus, but added that politicians would have to decide at the next election whether they wanted to hold on to a government made up of the four leading parties.
The former owner of the Ems chemical company has criticised a lack of cost awareness and managerial know-how in the federal administration.
Blocher said he had succeeded in his attempt to rein in rampant bureaucracy by reducing spending and axing more than 100 jobs in his justice ministry.
He pledged to continue a tough line on asylum after the number of applications dropped by more than 30 per cent over the past 11 months.
Newspapers gave Blocher mixed reviews for his achievements as cabinet minister. The weekly “Weltwoche”, which is said to be close to Blocher’s party, gave him credit for breaking certain taboos.
The Bern-based daily “Der Bund” said Blocher’s power is limited by the constitution.
“But the former opposition figurehead with a mission makes good use of his limited options. He might change the way the government thinks and tackles certain policy issues,” the paper said.
The tabloid “Blick” was less generous in its assessment and bluntly gave him the mark “sufficient”.
Shift to the Right
Blocher was one of two conservative politicians—beside Hans-Rudolf Merz from the centre-right Radical Party—elected to the cabinet last year, prompting concerns about a shift to the Right.
The centre-left Social Democrats said the new government had achieved little in 2004.
“The centre-right majority in the cabinet is a coalition of losers and was defeated in three crucial nationwide votes this year,” said Hans-Jürg Fehr, president of the Social Democrats.
His counterpart from the centre-right Christian Democratic Party, Doris Leuthard, saw expectations, which were not fulfilled.
“Even experienced politicians with close links to the business community only cook with water,” Leuthard told “Der Bund” newspaper.
However, political scientist Regula Stämpfli believes that Blocher’s arrival in cabinet marks a sea change in Swiss politics.
“The cabinet in its current form [with very different and strong personalities] will never be able to work together properly,” Stämpfli told the ATS news agency.