The World from Berlin Right-Wing Flop in Switzerland

On Wednesday, right-wing populist Justice Minister Christoph Blocher was unceremoniously discarded by the Swiss parliament. On Thursday, he led his party into the opposition. Fifty years of consensus government has come to an end and commentators wonder what's next.

'What do you mean I didn't get re-elected?'

'What do you mean I didn't get re-elected?'

On Wednesday, Switzerland was taken by surprise when Christoph Blocher, the controversial Justice Minister of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), failed to be elected into the Swiss Federal Council -- Switzerland's seven-member cabinet. The two chambers of the federal parliament opted instead to elect his moderate party colleague Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who was not even officially running for a seat.

The blow was a major one for Blocher, under whose leadership the SVP earned 29 percent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections in October, making it the strongest of the five parties in the National Assembly. Blocher, a billionaire industrialist, shaped his campaign with strong anti-immigration and nationalist rhetoric.

The other six members of the Federal Council were voted in with out difficulty. Under Switzerland's so-called "concordance democracy" system, the cabinet has, since 1959, included four major parties from the center-left to the center-right.

Prior to the vote, Blocher's election had been considered a sure thing. But manueverings by the Social Democrats, the center-right Christian Democrats and other parties led to an agreement to vote in Wimer-Schlumpf instead. Having received a majority of the votes in the second ballot, Widmer-Schlumpf accepted the parliament's nomination on Thursday.

Leading up to the election, Blocher had threatened that should he not be elected to cabinet, his party would withdraw from the ruling coalition. On Thursday, Caspar Baader, People's Party floor leader, made good on the threat by announcing that the party would be entering the opposition and would cease to recognize both Widmer-Schlumpf and Samuel Schmid, also of the SVP, who had accepted re-election to his post as Defense Minister. "Switzerland now has a center-left government," Baader told the assembly.

The SVP's move marks an end to half a century of consensus government among Switzerland's four main parties.

"You have destroyed our treasured system of government and sacrificed your sworn interest in concordance, collegiality and tolerance to benefit your own short-term power lust," Blocher told the house on Thursday, vowing to continue his work with the party in opposition.

Blocher is credited with having transformed the People's Party from a small group representing farmers' interests into a populist business-friendly party with strong middle-class support. The result he achieved for his party in October was the best of any individual party since Switzerland introduced proportional representation in 1919. The fall campaign, however, was charged with racism. Its posters featured a black sheep -- which the party claimed represented a criminal foreigner -- being kicked off a Swiss flag by three white sheep.

Meanwhile, women's rights groups celebrated Widmer-Schlumpf's acceptance of the cabinet position. She joins existing female ministers Micheline Calmy-Rey and Doris Leuthard, to bring the number of women in the executive to three: a first in Swiss history.

German papers responded to the Wednesday election with both admiration for the strong show of democracy in Switzerland and speculation about what the end of the Swiss model of "concordance" will mean for the country and for Europe.

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The vote against Justice Minister Christoph Blocher of the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP) in Bern's parliament is a sensation and contradicts all prognoses. More than that, it is a glorious moment for democracy. A victory for all those respectable people, including those of the conservative parties, who weren't to be intimidated by the SVP's threat to leave the government and join the opposition, should Blocher not be elected."

"The mechanism of constant consensus among the four strongest parties, combined with the people's participation in political decision-making at all levels, has significant benefits and is one of the main reasons that Switzerland is one of the most stable democracies in the world. Primarily the right-wing populist hardliners of Blocher's SVP have been threatening to destroy this time-proven system and replace it with a 'normal' political system of government and parliamentary opposition. That it's now come to this, however, because Blocher has failed, is not something they were counting on."

The center-left Süddetusche Zeitung writes:

"We don't have to assume that the Swiss Confederation is about to fall apart. But it's going to change: (…) the Swiss 'concordance' -- a kind of super-coalition of all parties -- lies in tatters. The basic consensus that once united the political opposition is a thing of the past."

"Formally, 'concordance' means that all the major parties are represented in the government, proportionate to their popular support. De facto it means more; there is a basic consensus that solutions should be found to which all minorities agree. And Switzerland is made up of minorities. In recent years, and especially in the fall election campaign, Blocher and the SVP have revoked this basic consensus. This has been, as the SVP's election results have shown, a popular course. Ever more Swiss are looking for policies that solve problems -- such as the waves of immigrants from neighboring countries -- rather than painting over them."

"What is definite: Bern's government is going to be less capable of acting if it has to respond to both popular votes and the resistance of a parliamentary opposition. Even the European Union will feel the change."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Contrary to the common view, Christoph Blocher is not a right-wing extremist. But he is a populist. In a country that clings to the idea of direct democracy, he knows better than anyone else how to take up the people's voice, amplify it and lend it political weight…"

"Populists are often indicators. They show that direct democracy (which is never exactly that) can serve to factor out and postpone problems. And they often become victims of their own success. That appears to be happening to Blocher. He could personally fall victim to the competition that he has forcefully demanded. He accused the Swiss Democracy of brushing differences -- on issues such as immigration and the EU question -- aside in the name of unity and thus of silencing the voice of the people. He wanted to dismantle the 'concordance'. Now he has succeeded -- and it was the other parties that, with their No to Blocher in parliament, have in effect driven the country's strongest party out."

"This is no major drama. To the contrary: dissent is part of democratic normality. And in the end, the losers are those who turned down Blocher in two ballots. Because they have voted out their time-honored model: the ongoing grand coalition that begun to lose the support of even the immensely patient Swiss."

-- Naomi Buck, 3:30 p.m. CET


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