The notion that nothing ever really happens in Switzerland, and certainly not in Swiss politics, was challenged in 2003 by the advent of the millionaire Christoph Blocher to the Federal Council.
The Federal Council is the government of Switzerland and is a sort of permanent coalition of seven members drawn broadly pro rata from the four main political parties who between them poll over 80% of the popular vote.
The composition of the Council which had existed since 1959 was disrupted when in 2003 the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), emerged from the parliamentary election as the largest party (27%) and claimed an additional seat for its leader Blocher at the cost of a seat held by one of the other main parties. It may not have been a revolution, but in Swiss terms it represented a fairly substantial avalanche.
Blocher, like Gordon Brown a son of the manse, made a fortune from his involvement in the Ems-Chemie company and has become one of the richest men in Switzerland.
From the 1970s he has been politically active, at local level and in the capital Berne, and his involvement, both political and financial, in the SVP has transformed the party over the last thirty years from one which spoke for farmers and small businesses in German-speaking Switzerland into a right-wing populist party for the whole of Switzerland which since 1975 has trebled its share of the popular vote.
Its rise coincides with the advent of factors damaging to a traditionalist perception of Swiss identity: international concern in the mid-1990s at Swiss immigration policy during the Second World War and the role of Swiss banks during the Nazi period effectively deconstructed reassuring views of recent Swiss history; large numbers of foreign workers in the Swiss economy, many of them seeking Swiss nationality; the increasing power of the EU with which Switzerland, although not a member, has many formal bi-lateral arrangements.
Blocher never tires of reminding his listeners that traditional Swiss values are under threat but ironically his stance and method of campaigning have been responsible for the introduction of an abrasive polarization quite alien to the Swiss political scene, the central feature of which is decision-making by consensus.
The SVP, strongly anti-welfare but content with the massive subsidies paid by Berne to Swiss farmers and stridently anti-EU despite the huge amount of Swiss trade with the EU, conducted an electoral campaign marked by distortion and xenophobia which led to disturbances in Lausanne and riots in Berne and elicited unfavorable comment from the UN.
But it seems to be in tune with a large section of the Swiss electorate, increasing its share of the vote in Sunday’s election by 2% to 29% and it now has a lead of some 10% over the next largest party, the Socialists (SP). It remains to be seen what influence this will have on the elections to the Federal Council on 12 December. Blocher’s rightwing populism is going to play a major role in Swiss politics for the immediately foreseeable future.
Joy Charnley lectures in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow). Her research focuses on the work of contemporary women writers in French-speaking Switzerland.
Malcolm Pender is Emeritus Professor of German in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Strathclyde. He has published extensively on German-speaking Swiss writers.