Consensus system intact despite party squabble

Defence Minister Schmid turns his back on the People's Party Keystone Archive

The rightwing Swiss People's Party looks set to lose its representatives in the government in an ongoing internal policy row.

This content was published on June 4, 2008 - 18:06

But Zurich University political scientist Michael Hermann tells swissinfo that Switzerland is unlikely to abolish its consensus system in the seven-member cabinet.

The People's Party has been subject to internal tensions between hardliners and liberal members for several years. The situation took a turn for the worse after the controversial cabinet minister and People's Party figurehead Christoph Blocher was voted out by parliament six months ago.

On Sunday the party moved to ban Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and her Graubünden chapter, because she had accepted her election to the cabinet against the wishes of the party leadership.

A day later Defence Minister Samuel Schmid, the other People's Party representative in the four-party government, made it clear he no longer backed his party's hardball political style and was willing to join a more moderate movement.

The People's Party won 29 per cent of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections making it the largest of the country's four main parties. Under the consensus system the distribution of cabinet seats reflects the relative strengths of the political parties in parliament.

swissinfo: Does Samuel Schmid's move mean the end of the Swiss consensus system?

Michael Hermann: It is the end of the consensus system purely from a mathematical point of view.

But there are still consensus elements left. The cabinet is still based on a broad political spectrum. It's neither a centre-left nor centre-right government. The ministers cooperate to a certain degree to find common solutions.

swissinfo: What is the most likely scenario for the near future?

M.H.: I don't think we are entering a new era in Swiss politics. It is not the beginning of a system based on government and opposition. Neither of the centre-right parties - the Radicals or the Christian Democrats - is ready to side with the centre-left or the rightwing.

Also the system of direct democracy – with people's initiatives and referendums – is not compatible with a system based on government and opposition. Furthermore, the People's Party, which has been championing people power, is highly unlikely to abandon direct democracy.

As last weekend's vote on citizenship has shown there is a lack of support for the party's self-styled opposition stance.

swissinfo: What is the risk of the People's Party trying to force even more nationwide votes and blocking the legislative process?

M.H.: Citizens know how to differentiate. They aren't really interested in teaching the government a lesson by voting against it.

There is a strong tradition of participation in the political decision-making process, which is apparent in turnout figures. More people take part in votes than in elections.

swissinfo: What are the chances for the People's Party to have one of their candidates succeed in the next cabinet elections?

M.H.: The other parties will continue to try to include all the main political forces in the government. But that depends on the People's Party's willingness to compromise.

Take the case of the centre-left Social Democrats. They are represented in the cabinet, but are a minority and relatively tame. Chances are they would be much more aggressive if they were excluded.

swissinfo: How will Justice Minister Widmer-Schlumpf and Defence Minister Schmid's positions be affected by them joining a new party?

M.H.: It could become difficult for them if the new group formally cooperates with another centre-right party, such as the Christian Democrats.

Until now they could say that they were elected to the cabinet as members of the People's Party. But I don't see any major changes as long as none of the cabinet ministers step down.

swissinfo: What led to the unique situation in Swiss history that the biggest party, which won 29 per cent of vote in last year's parliamentary elections, is no longer represented in cabinet?

M.H.: It is the result of a gradual disintegration of the bloc of centre-right parties following the end of the Cold War era and the debate about closer relations with the European Union.

The People's Party won an increasing share of the vote and became less willing to compromise. It began to act as if it held a majority and was the sole political power with a say. But it overreached itself, provoking a backlash.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser based on an interview in German by Corinne Buchser

In brief

The political make-up of the Swiss cabinet changed in 2003 after more than 40 years with two representatives each from the Christian Democrats, the Radicals and the Social Democrats and one member of the Swiss People's Party.

Five years ago the People's Party increased its share of the vote and won an additional seat at the expense of the Christian Democrats.

People's Party figurehead Christoph Blocher became justice minister, but parliament refused to confirm him in December 2007. It elected instead Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf.

The move led to a drawn-out row between hardliners and moderates inside the party, including the banning of the Graubünden cantonal party chapter.

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