Far-Right Turmoil Hits Swiss Politics

AFP, December 14, 2007

Switzerland faced rare political turbulence yesterday as the leading far-right party vowed to make life difficult for lawmakers who ejected its strongman Christoph Blocher from the government.

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) said its lawmakers would now go into opposition, raising the spectre of political paralysis.

The SVP is expected to exploit Switzerland’s system of direct democracy and popular referendums to harry ministers and block government initiatives.

“We will put pressure on parliament and the government with initiatives and referendums,” SVP official Caspar Baader said.

Swiss citizens have unusually strong legislative powers which the SVP will now hope to exploit. They vote four or five times a year in referendums at national level and may even launch their own under the country’s system of direct democracy.

Blocher, the key architect of the SVP’s rise over the past decade, on Wednesday failed to be re-elected to the seven-member Federal Council after lawmakers from the Left and the Christian Democrats voted against him. Blocher’s opponents across the political spectrum have all been appalled at abrasive style and crude rhetoric, particularly during October’s election campaign which produced acres of critical coverage in foreign media.

In Blocher’s place parliament elected Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, another SVP member but considered to be on the more moderate wing of the party. Blocher told lawmakers he could not decide whether to feel “relieved, disappointed or indignant” about the manner in which he was ejected from power.

He said he was relieved “because I can now once more say what I think, speak about things I was not able to for reasons of concordance and collegiality”.

“I am leaving the government, but not politics,” he insisted.

Widmer-Schlumpf accepted her nomination on yesterday, joining fellow SVP member and Blocher opponent Samuel Schmid on the Council.

But even though the SVP will have its two usual representatives on the council, the party has said they will no longer be counted as members of its parliamentary faction. Thus, the SVP lawmakers consider themselves in opposition.

Blocher, a 67-year-old billionaire industrialist and preacher’s son, has dominated Swiss politics for over a decade, transforming the SVP from a small, rural party into a formidable political machine firmly anchored to the far-right.


{snip}

Billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher, the charismatic leader of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, was defeated 125 votes to 115 by a last-minute candidate from his own party in a joint session of parliament called to elect a new seven-member Federal Council.

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the last-minute candidate from the more moderate wing of Blocher’s party, was under heavy pressure from party leaders to withdraw. She said she would not announce until Thursday whether she will accept the seat, throwing Switzerland’s usually predictable politics into turmoil.

If she turns down the election, a new vote would be required, and Blocher said he would run again.

Under what the Swiss call their “concordance democracy,” the Cabinet has been made up of four parties ranging across the broad center of Swiss politics since 1959. The other six Cabinet members were easily re-elected and were immediately sworn in for a new four-year term.

{snip}

The party received the highest vote ever recorded in Switzerland after a bitter campaign in which it accused immigrants of responsibility for much of the crime in the country. Party posters featuring white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag sparked widespread outrage, but still resonated with the party faithful and attracted new voters.

{snip}

Blocher’s loss on Wednesday was the result of overnight maneuvering by the Social Democrats and the centrist Christian Democrats, who put up the little-known Widmer-Schlumpf in the race for the People’s Party’s second seat in the Federal Council.

Reto Nause, general secretary of the Christian People’s Party, said Widmer-Schlumpf would make a strong member of the Cabinet and would increase the number of women in the Federal Council to three.

{snip}

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