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Sunday, October 24, 1999 Published at 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK

World: Europe

Switzerland's Mr No

People's Party appears to have struck a chord among voters

By Claire Doole in Geneva

The rise of the right-wing Swiss People's Party is due to one man, Christoph Blocher, the leader of the party in the region around Zurich.

At an election rallies in the run-up to the election, he was the star turn. The party faithful, farmers, businessmen and old age pensioners, turned out in droves to hear him speak.

He is a charismatic orator, thumping home his anti-immigrant message and strong opposition to European Union and United Nations membership. It is a message his supporters lap up.

"He is super, super good, showing how Switzerland shouldn't be like any other country and should stay the same," said one. "We are neutral and I think we should remain neutral."

"We need someone like Mr Blocher in Switzerland, that is quite clear. We need people who can say no," said another supporter.

Straight talking leader

Christoph Blocher prides himself on saying what the other parties dare not say. On sensitive issues such as immigration, he does not mince his words.

"90% of the immigrants who are here are abusing the system and they are here because Switzerland makes it very attractive for them, much more attractive than Britain for example, and we have to correct this so the abuse of our asylum laws stops," he says.

Though he insists he is not racist, Christoph Blocher does attract extreme right-wing support.

"I wouldn't call him a fascist. He's the guy who just has the match and isn't there when the fire breaks out," says Jean Martin Butner, the political correspondent of the centre left newspaper Tagesanzeiger.

"It's also interesting that people from the extreme right, people who work in the underground, always say Blocher was the only figure they accepted, so this shows that he's always playing with ideas, right-wing ideas and shying away from the conclusions."

Setting the agenda

All eyes were on the People's Party in the run-up to the elections. The other parties hardly left the starting blocks, reacting to the People's Party rather than setting the agenda.

The only high profile politician to take on the party is Pascal Couchepin, economics minister and Liberal Party member. He dislikes Christoph Blocher's message and style.

"His policy is mostly negative. I know what he is against. I do not know for what he is fighting, and this is very difficult to argument with him because he says no," he says.

"He says it is necessary to have a party who says always no. Well, I say as a member of the government, it would be also necessary from time to time to have a party who is able to say yes and to introduce new arguments, to give you ideas."

The rise of the People's Party is not only unsettling its political opponents, but also the non-German speaking parts of the country. The French and Italian speakers already resent the influence of the majority Swiss Germans.

In Fribourg, on the country's linguistic divide, the fear is Christoph Blocher will only alienate the communities further, deepening the cultural division.

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