Saturday, December 06, 2003

Blocher wants to slash government spending, bureaucracy and welfarist "cradle-to- grave coddling."

"I believe in collegiality. I'm too old to build up a dictatorship."

A Swiss Nationalist Threatens to Smash Political Consensus

GENEVA (AP) - Switzerland's polite and placid politics look headed for a shakeup familiar to European countries that have been dazzled but divided by populists with a penchant for firebrand rhetoric.

Austria suffered a diplomatic boycott for admitting Joerg Haider's party into the government in 2000. Two years later Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked France with his second- place finish in the presidential election. Now it's Switzerland's turn to grapple with a charismatic nationalist who threatens to smash the consensus that has held sway for nearly 45 years.

On Wednesday, the nation's parliament will vote on whether to admit industrialist Christoph Blocher to the four-party Cabinet by giving his party a second seat. Whatever it decides, Swiss politics will be transformed.

If it blocks him, he says he'll pull the Swiss People's Party out of the seven- member Cabinet, heralding the end of politics as usual in the nation of 7 million people.

If it admits him, he will have an official platform for his attacks on immigrants, the European Union and other foreign influences he considers unwelcome intrusions.

As one of Switzerland's richest industrialists, Blocher is also its most influential politician. He led the charge against membership in the borderless European Union, maintaining that Switzerland shouldn't cede its cherished independence to bureaucrats in Brussels. He noisily campaigned against foreign pressure on Swiss banks - which sat on assets of Holocaust victims for decades - to pay compensation to their heirs.

He is an outspoken critic of Swiss asylum laws, claiming the country is being flooded with foreigners. And in a country where collegiality is the hallmark of politics, he can be downright uncivil...

Before the October parliamentary elections, Blocher's party ran full-page newspaper advertisements criticizing "pampered criminals, shameless asylum- seekers and a brutal Albanian mafia," implicitly linking them to an increase in murders, rapes and other violence. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees criticized the ads as "nakedly anti-asylum."

But voters handed Blocher a stunning election victory, with the People's Party emerging as the biggest bloc in parliament, ahead of the Social Democrats. This prompted Blocher to demand that he should be given a Cabinet seat, alongside his mild-mannered party colleague Samuel Schmid, at the expense of one of the center parties.

Ahead of what is expected to be a tumultuous parliamentary vote, Blocher has launched a charm offensive to try to convince Swiss skeptics he is a "liberal conservative" who idolizes Winston Churchill, enjoys Mozart and mountain walks and won't try to smash the team spirit once in power.

"I believe in collegiality. I'm too old to build up a dictatorship," the 63-year-old said at a news conference.

"We believe in a nation state. We are not nationalists, because they have an over- inflated view of their own importance and think they are better than all others," he added.

"We think Switzerland is a special case which needs protection and care. But we recognize that other countries like England and France are also special cases and we respect them," he says.

But many Swiss expect that having Blocher in the Cabinet would kill any chance of Switzerland joining the EU and herald a clampdown on asylum seekers. Blocher also wants to slash government spending, bureaucracy and welfarist "cradle-to- grave coddling."

Many Swiss companies and the powerful banks support Blocher, having slowly shifted allegiances from the center to the People's Party.

Blocher's party "very early and actively defended our industry, so it is normal that the Swiss banks would be pleased to see two members of this party elected," said Pierre Mirabaud, president of the Swiss Bankers Association.

Blocher, proclaiming himself the "voice of the people," insists he is merely responding to popular pressure and doesn't actually thirst for a government seat.

"If I am honest, I've never felt at ease in this chamber. There are no windows, so it is impossible to look out to see the countryside, life and the people who are directly affected by our decisions," he said at the opening session of the new parliament Dec. 1.

While he portrays himself as a simple Swiss countryman, Blocher's chemical company, EMS, in mountainous eastern Switzerland, has helped him amass a fortune estimated at $1.7 million.

One of 11 children, Blocher has been married for 36 years and is big on family values. Although he has groomed his daughter to succeed him at EMS, he argues a woman's place is in the home and he opposes state subsidized nurseries and maternity benefits.

Blocher's election to the Cabinet is far from certain. If he does make it, he says, he will foment "creative unrest" but be pleasant to Cabinet colleagues he has called incompetent.

"In my life I've always worked with people I considered incompetent," he says. "I've gotten used to it."

  • AP Breaking
  • Links to this post:

    Create a Link

    << Home