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

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!"

Breakdown of parties in Swiss parliament. Click to enlarge.

Breakdown of parties in Swiss parliament. Click to enlarge.

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.


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