Switzerland: A Hard-Right Kick In The Pants

With a toehold in government, expect Christoph Blocher to shake up Switzerland

You don't have to be Swiss to be rubbed the wrong way by Christoph Blocher's anti-immigrant rhetoric and his xenophobic aversion to the European Union, NATO, and most other forms of international cooperation. Nor do you have to be a citizen of this Alpine nation of 7.3 million to be turned off by his bullying tactics as he jockeys for power ahead of the Dec. 10 elections for the governing Federal Council. The entrepreneur who leads the right-wing Swiss People's Party is often likened to Austria's Jörg Haider or France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, two other right-wing populists. In fact, he's much more moderate than they are. Still, Blocher's reactionary politics have polarized the Swiss electorate and threatens the country's cherished political stability. The Swiss idyll is not as idyllic as it used to be.

To the outside world, Switzerland may look as cozy and prosperous as ever, with just 3.8% employment and some of the lowest taxes of any industrialized nation. But morale has been dented by the collapse of national icons such as flag carrier Swissair, which went bankrupt in 2001, and massive layoffs in the all-important banking industry. An influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, coupled with weak growth, have stoked fears that the Swiss way of life is under siege. The country's centrist parties, the Christian Democratic People's Party and pro-business Free Democratic Party, have been slow to respond to such concerns -- which allowed Blocher's party to outpoll them in October elections. "The success of Blocher suggests that the idea of a politically stable Switzerland, where the consensus rules, is probably waning," says one senior banker.

Having Blocher in the government may actually force the Swiss to confront some of their most pressing problems. These range from runaway pension and health-care costs, to mounting government debt and loose corporate governance. Also, the current leadership has failed to do enough to make Switzerland's high-cost economy competitive. With him in the Federal Council, "it's not going to be comfortable for the other members," Blocher told the daily Tages-Anzeiger.

Blocher is known for his reactionary proposals, including "reception camps" for asylum seekers and restrictions on "cheap" imported farm produce. Yet he's also a pragmatist who has amply demonstrated his leadership skills. He is chairman of Männedorf-based EMS Chemical Holding, a company with $894 million in annual sales that, among other things, supplies plastics to the auto industry. He also transformed the Swiss People's Party, once a Zurich-based farmers' group, into the nation's strongest political force. The party won 26.6% of the popular vote in Oct. 19 elections for National Council, with a platform based on law and order, traditional family values, and a Switzerland-first foreign policy.


No question, Blocher's methods are sometimes crude. Now that his forces control the largest bloc in the lower house of Parliament, Blocher is demanding his own seat on the seven-member Federal Council, in addition to the one his party already holds. If the Swiss People's Party doesn't get what it wants, he has threatened to pull out of the government altogether and act as a noisy, destabilizing opposition.

That would be very un-Swiss. The Establishment is visibly uneasy at the prospect of Blocher in government. Business is "afraid he would be a loose cannon," says Stéphane Garelli, a professor at IMD Business School in Lausanne. Yet as a member of the Federal Council, the 63-year-old pastor's son might be forced to reconcile some of the internal contradictions of his party's platform. For instance, Blocher rails against government regulation, yet he draws much of his support from small-business owners who depend on regulation to keep a lid on competition. Likewise, Blocher's forces are fighting against expanded benefits for new mothers, while staunchly defending subsidies for farmers in a country where, as wags like to point out, every cow gets $2,000 a year.

On the bright side, Blocher may bring a decisiveness that has been missing from government. "We could have less compromising and more change," says Janwillem Acket, chief economist at Bank Julius Baer in Zurich. What Switzerland needs is a Blocher whose worst tendencies are held in check, but who can still shake the Establishment out of its torpor.

By Jack Ewing, with David Fairlamb, in Frankfurt

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