White Sheep, Black Sheep Bringing Rancor to a Swiss Election

The populist Christoph Blocher has dominated the Swiss government for four years while also managing the odd trick of seeming to lead the opposition. Now Switzerland has experienced its dirtiest campaign in history, featuring xenophobia and street violence -- and it all revolves around Blocher.
Fear and loathing on the campaign trail

Fear and loathing on the campaign trail

Foto: DPA

The sun shines on Lake Sempach and the cowbells clang as Switzerland's most controversial politician, accompanied by his wife and his party's mascot, a billy goat, enters the Seepark Festival Hall in the town of Sempach, Canton Lucerne.

Christoph Blocher , 67, is a little man with a belly, wearing a grey suit. Across his rough country face is plastered a smile. He strides into the building behind Geißbock Zottel, the mascot goat, followed by a colorful parade of men ringing cowbells and a man shouldering an alphorn and women in traditional outfits carrying bouquets of flowers.

Blocher mounts the stage and glances down at his party. Close to 1,000 people sit on long benches next to a historical painting on the left-hand wall of an army of Swiss soldiers wielding spears and flags, the calm waters of the lake in the background.

The painting depicts the mythical Battle of Sempach on July 9, 1386, which pitted the Swiss against the army of the Hapsburg Empire, a battle Arnold von Winkelried is said to have won by allowing the Hapsburg knights to skewer his body on their lances to create a gap in the enemy line for his fellow Swiss soldiers. Legend has it that his last words were: "A path to freedom!"

Blocher praises the choice of the historic town, saying: "Winkelried was a man who sacrificed himself for the greater good, for the community." Of course, Blocher is seeking to draw parallels to his own campaign. "A good politician must be able to sacrifice himself for the greater good and for the country. He doesn't have to give his life, but he must suffer the consequences."

Blocher is Winkelried.

Switzerland, says Blocher, had to defend its freedom against the Hapsburgs, and now it's time to do so again. But the enemies this time around, according to Blocher, are the leftists and the European Union.

The room roars with applause.

Blocher has put up with a great deal of consequences lately, but now he stands in front of the members of his party as they celebrate him, the Swiss minister of justice, their very own member of the cabinet. Life for Blocher these days is back to the way it used to be, as he stands alone, facing off against everyone else.

The Swiss will elect a new parliament next Sunday, Oct. 21. The election will mark the end of a campaign unprecedented in Switzerland -- it has been loud and spiteful, marred by demonstrations and brawls, not to mention a poster branded by the UN as racist. It has revolved around secret plans, plots and other conspiracies. And everything revolves around Christoph Blocher.

Should He Stay or Should He Go?

Whether one is for or against Blocher is the question that now divides Switzerland: Should he stay in the government after the elections? Or is the Swiss model finished, with its principle of a coalition of all major parties across the political spectrum?

Blocher's Swiss People's Party, the SVP, has plastered his face across the country, on posters that read, simply: "Vote SVP! Strengthen Blocher!"

Even his fiercest opponents, the Social Democrats, are obsessed with him. The cornerstone of their campaign for the past year has been to oust Blocher from office.

Violence broke out two weeks ago in Bern, the Swiss capital, when 500 left-wing activists attacked a demonstration staged by Blocher's SVP. Images of stone-throwers, water canons and burning barricades were broadcast around the world. The uproar even attracted the attention of Switzerland's neighbors, like Germany and France, who were so used to mild Swiss election campaigns that they might have been forgiven for thinking the Swiss had no election campaigns.

Although Switzerland's economy is thriving, crude issues in this election have ranged from the deportation of foreign criminals, the banning of minarets and youth violence. The main question on the minds of Switzerland's neighbors -- when it will join the European Union -- is nonexistent in this campaign; in fact there is so much resistance to EU membership among the Swiss that no party would make it a platform of its campaign. This is Blocher's work, in large part. His success on the issue of EU membership has been so complete that even his ouster from office would not change public opinion.

Still, there are many indications that Blocher will be re-elected by parliament in December. But the notion that elections could even affect Swiss politics in a decisive way is a relatively new concept for the country.

First, almost all key issues are decided directly by popular referendum. Second, for decades elections did nothing to change the composition of the executive branch, the Federal Council -- effectively the country's governing cabinet -- until 2003.

That was when Blocher started to shake up the government. Switzerland's four biggest parties traditionally divided up executive power according to a so-called "magic formula," in place since 1959, which said the Federal Council should consist of two members of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), two Christian Democrats (CVP), two Social Democrats (SP) and one member of Blocher's party, the Swiss People's Party (SVP).

This sanctified principle was called "concordance," and it meant the country was essentially managed, rather than governed. The seven members of the Federal Council reached their decisions by majority vote in a secret ballot, which was considered binding.

The rise of Blocher and his SVP rattled this system. His party wound up polling so well against the others that they were forced to vote Blocher himself -- as a second SVP member -- into the Federal Council. This happened close to four years ago. It marked the end of a struggle that had lasted half a lifetime, a struggle against the establishment, the European Union and the omnipotence of the state.

"The Lumberjack"

Now Blocher himself represents the state, has government bodyguards and is driven around the country in a government limousine. He has a narrow office with a view, a desk, leather armchairs and the requisite plants in Bern, on the second floor of a government building known as Bundeshaus West.

A two-meter painting by Ferdinand Hodler titled "The Lumberjack" hangs on the wall, depicting a man swinging his ax against a small tree with all the force of his sinewy, outstretched body. The painting conveys a sense of tremendous aggression, and Blocher says the same thing to all his visitors: That looking at the painting always makes him feel better when he is buried in paperwork, and when the bureaucracy he has made it his mission to fight threatens to overwhelm him. He sees himself in the painting, as a man hacking everything to pieces. In some ways, he is an anarchist.

Free-Market and Folksy

Although commentators abroad frequently liken him to far-right radicals like Austrian politician Jörg Haider and Frenchman Jean-Marie Le Pen, Blocher bears a much closer resemblance to Britain's conservatives, with his belief in the free market and his disdain for the state. He combines these views with a peasant's suspicion of everything foreign. He's free-market and folksy at the same time, a curious but highly successful mixture.

Blocher still seems out of place in the chambers of the Swiss Federal Council, where guards stride through the neo-Renaissance corridors in traditional uniforms, serving tea on silver trays.

He lounges in his chair, leaning back on his elbows, his legs crossed, and talks about the old days, about his 1992 fight against Switzerland's entry into the European Economic Community (EEC). He still uses the same word he used then, calling the proposed agreement a "colonial treaty." He "fought like a lion," he says, and his efforts paid off. A slim (50.3 per cent) majority of Swiss citizens voted down the proposal, in a decision that would keep Switzerland out of the EU for years, and maybe decades. It was the start of Blocher's rise to power.

His party doubled its share of votes in the coming years. As the country's bland centrist parties shrank, the SVP became the most potent political force in Switzerland. And in December 2003, something happened that by Swiss standards was a revolution: The SVP received a second seat in the cabinet, and the parliament voted Blocher into the Council at the expense of a Christian Democrat. Blocher had threatened to take his party into the opposition if he wasn't elected to the Council, a prospect that frightened the remaining parties even more than having a man like Blocher in government.

By electing him, they hoped to integrate and weaken Blocher; but he resisted integration. He disrupted Bern's compromise-based culture, leading to constant quarrels within a government that was meant to be a cooperative group. He challenged his fellow members of the government by orderING his staff to prepare "parallel reports" for their respective areas, and by keeping well informed about their dossiers.

The Federal Council is a typically Swiss body, and it has always been difficult to tell who dominates it. The system breaks down power without transferring it to any one individual. But Blocher often managed to convince his centrist colleagues to support his causes. He wasn't always successful, but he did become more powerful than almost any previous member of the Council.

"But I don't have any power," he says, smiling. It's difficult to tell whether he actually believes this.

Thanks to him, he says, Switzerland now has one of Europe's toughest asylum laws. He managed to change the wording of the government's position toward EU membership from a "strategic objective" to an "option." Instead of membership, Switzerland is tied to the EU through many bilateral agreements, but the relationship is purely economic.

In spite of these victories, Blocher's strength lies in the weakness of others. Not a single Swiss politician can spar with him. It also hasn't hurt his cause that he long ago abandoned the ranks of the simple country folk he prefers to invoke: Blocher is a billionaire. A former entrepreneur, he built a highly profitable corporation called Ems Chemie. He lives in a villa overlooking Lake Zürich, with a spectacular view of the Alps and his own cable railway.

Victim of a secret plot?

What is most uncanny about Blocher is that he is a politician because he feels driven by his urge to transform the state. He likes to call it his "mission," although who exactly ordered the mission remains unclear.

Sources say that the other members of the government have worked harder since Blocher's election. They are dealing with a man who, ever since his days as a farm hand, has woken up at 5:30 every morning for a six-kilometer run. They are dealing with a former colonel in the military who recently published a book outlining his philosophy of leadership. One principle is that he never praises his staff and that employees are never permitted to ask their superior any questions. Anyone who wants something from Blocher has to submit a written request.

Blocher has become increasingly statesmanlike in recent years as a result of his new role in the government. But he has also played up the role of opposition leader, in order to keep from disappointing his fervent followers -- a strategy that has benefited him politically.

This weekend's elections shouldn't have been much cause for concern for Blocher. According to opinion polls, no major shifts are expected, perhaps only from one centrist party to another. The Social Democrats could lose ground to the Greens, while the SVP will likely repeat its record success from 2003 and garner around 27 percent of votes.

But his party suddenly began sounding the alarm and ran a nationwide ad campaign in August which claimed there was a "secret plan" to remove Blocher from office. When a parliamentary investigative panel raised suspicions that Blocher was involved in a "conspiracy" to depose the country's highest-ranking federal prosecutor -- which quickly proved to be nonsense -- the SVP's claims seemed to have come true. The Weltwoche, a pro-Blocher publication, ran a cover story titled "Coup Against Blocher." Blocher has come to believe it himself, and he's resumed his role as opposition leader -- even here in Sempach, as he addresses loyal members of his own party. He stands at the podium, feet planted on the ground, but his body in constant motion, almost rotating, as he waves his arms. "These are the methods of a totalitarian state," he says to loud applause. Blocher portrays himself as the victim of a secret plot.

"The expression 'black sheep' exists in every language"

His party's other issue this year is youth violence. It has increased considerably, he says, adding that it just so happens that most of today's delinquents are foreigners, especially immigrants from the Balkans. The problem can't be solved, he says, unless people openly discuss it.

His party has launched a popular initiative known as the Deportation Initiative. Under the plan, foreign minors who commit serious crimes could be deported, together with their parents. Blocher tells his audience that he wants to take tougher action, and that criminals will only learn their lesson if the punishment hurts. He talks about education. Everything gets lumped together in Blocher's rhetoric. He rages against leftist educational practices, against the lack of discipline in schools, but in essence his policies for dealing with foreigners are themselves a sort of educational policy. Some would call it an especially brutal educational policy.

He promises a "conservative shift." Then a microphone is passed around so that his audience can ask anything that happens to be on their minds. One listener asks why Switzerland's prisons are so luxurious. "Please don't leave the Federal Council," one old woman begs him, beaming as she shakes his hand. "I'll see what I can do," he growls.

After the speech he says his European counterparts would be astonished if he were to tell them about events like this one. "That's the value of direct democracy." In Europe, says Blocher, many citizens suffer from feelings of impotence in the face of politicians who operate on a higher, unapproachable plane. "I didn't understand half of what the politicians were saying in the last German election campaign," he says. "That's why I have to make an effort to say things in a way that people can understand."

He says he doesn't like being at the center of this campaign, but he's quick to blame his opponents for putting him in this role, since they were the ones who spent four years attacking him and his policies. If he's removed from the Council, says Blocher, he will be forced to lead his party in the opposition. "I see many more opportunities today than in the past," he says. "The opposition in Switzerland is tempting, because it enables you to push for popular referendums."

Posters touting the "Deportation Initiative" have now appeared throughout Switzerland. They depict three white sheep standing on a Swiss flag and kicking away a single black sheep. Political discourse in Switzerland is rarely politically correct, but the United Nations special observer lodged an official protest with the government against this poster, claiming it was racist.

Responding to the criticism, Blocher says: "The expression 'black sheep' exists in every language. How can someone seriously think that this is a reference to Africans? Everyone knows that the 'black sheep' are the criminal foreigners we have to deport."

Representatives of his party have launched a second initiative to ban the construction of new minarets in Switzerland. Blocher says that although he cannot comment officially on the initiative, the critical question will be whether a minaret can be defined as an obligatory part of a mosque. "That's something we will have to examine." Besides, says Blocher, he doesn't know of any Muslim nation that permits church towers.

Now it's time to go. He walks along the lake with his wife Silvia. The Blochers board a waiting green Swiss military helicopter. This man of the people soars over the Alps aboard a government-owned machine which will take him to his second home in Rhäzüns, in Canton Graubünden, where Switzerland's conservative power couple plans to spend the weekend.

The Blochers' second home, actually, is a castle.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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