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Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Right rocks Swiss consensus

By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Swiss cities regularly top international quality of life polls. The scenery is beautiful, unemployment low. The schools are good and the trains arrive on time.

The richer the people in Switzerland get the more they are afraid to lose
Andreas Gross
Socialist MP
The success in Sunday's general election of an anti-immigration, far-right party has been interpreted, however, as a sign that the Swiss want change, and as such has baffled many who have enviously eyed the Alpine federation's prosperity and stability.

The outcome of Sunday's elections - in which the nationalist People's Party won the highest share of the vote - could alter the make-up and tone of the country's Federal Council for the first time since 1959.

"We are seeing a political polarisation in Switzerland, which is a country which has always stressed the importance of consensus," says political analyst Thomas Fleiner, noting that the left-wing also gained ground in Sunday's poll.

"And the big question now is whether the system of Swiss Government and the consensual style can cope with this, or whether an entirely new form of politics is needed."

But why?

Whether Sunday's vote will indeed shatter Switzerland's "magic formula", which has carved up power in the same way among the same four parties for 44 years, remains to be seen.

It is unclear whether the People's Party, which has traditionally taken just one of the seven cabinet seats, will now succeed in taking a second at the expense of another party.

But commentators have moved quickly to pick apart what persuaded some 27% of the electorate to back a party which campaigned primarily on an anti-foreigner platform, using posters portraying asylum seekers as criminals.

Switzerland has a relatively high level of immigration, per head of population - asylum applications rose by 26.6% in 2002 to 26,125.

But for Andreas Gross, an MP from the Socialist Party, the success of the People's Party stems from Switzerland's own economic successes down the decades.

"The richer the people in Switzerland get," declared the politician, "the more they are afraid to lose".

The far-right has indeed in recent years tended to perform well in countries famous for their wealth and stability: Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark have all seen openly anti-immigrant parties enter government in the past five years.

Splendid isolation

However, it is widely agreed that Swiss confidence in its economic competence - and consequently in itself - has suffered a knock of late.

The Swiss don't compare themselves with other nations, they compare themselves with what they think they should be like
Professor Thomas Fleiner
Institute of Federalism
The collapse two years ago of the national flag carrier Swissair - once one of the most prestigious airlines in the world - and with it the loss of 6,000 jobs, hit hard, and brought thousands onto the streets in protest.

Editorials in newspapers attacked the power of Swiss banks and the laissez-faire Swiss economy, while some also tentatively noted that Switzerland's splendid isolationism meant it enjoyed none of the protections of bodies like the EU while still being vulnerable to the economic fluctuations of the outside world.

Analysts at the time suggested that the collapse would either persuade the Swiss that more co-operation with the outside world was needed, or precipitate a further retreat - as the People's Party's leader Christoph Blocher advocates.

In the meantime, economic growth has turned to recession, and unemployment has hit a new high of nearly 4%.

To many of Switzerland's neighbours - which see unemployment hover doggedly at the 9% mark - such anxiety over joblessness is rather irksome.

"But the Swiss don't compare themselves with other nations, they compare themselves with what they think they should be like," says Professor Fleiner.

"And at the moment people are very insecure. That is what Mr Blocher appealed to with his anti-immigration campaign, which is in any case an issue a lot of people are worried about."


Even if the People's Party do get the second seat on the Federal Council they are calling for, it remains unclear whether their gains will have a significant impact on Swiss policy.

Switzerland's famous referendums, which can be called on any issue as long as campaigners manage to collect 100,000 signatures, has tended to limit any party's ability to push through their own agenda.

In November 2002, the Swiss rejected a proposal by the People's Party to introduce what would have been the toughest anti-immigrant legislation in Europe.

Political analysts also suggest that tying far-right, firebrand parties into government tends to have a restrictive, rather than liberating effect, on their policies.

Austria's far-right Freedom Party is often seen as highlighting the difficulties such parties face when given substantial political power.

Having scooped up an astonishing 27% of the vote in 1999 elections - a score which enabled it to enter government - the party saw dismal results in early elections held this year.

Profile: Christoph Blocher
20 Oct 03  |  Europe
Race row ignites Swiss election
16 Sep 03  |  Europe
Immigrants face Swiss curbs
19 Dec 02  |  Europe
Swiss reject tougher asylum laws
24 Nov 02  |  Europe
Country profile: Switzerland
23 Jul 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Switzerland
21 May 03  |  Country profiles
Switzerland's Mr No
24 Oct 99  |  Europe

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