Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf: the ‘prudent’ accountant

Widmer-Schlumpf quipped on Wednesday: "People have been asking me for the past eight years when I'm going to resign" Keystone

The Swiss newspapers wave goodbye to Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf after her announcement on Thursday that she will not stand for re-election to the Swiss cabinet in December. The newspapers are full of praise for the politician who unconventionally took a seat on the cabinet eight years ago. 

This content was published on October 29, 2015 minutes
Jo Fahy and Simon Bradley,

The German-language Tages-Anzeiger paper applauds Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf for her "logical" yet "surprising" move. Logical, because she knew that the new parliament would no longer support her in office, and surprising because she kept the country guessing right up until she made her announcement.

It's only right that the largest party in the country has a second seat in the cabinet, the paper admits, referring to the conservative right Swiss People's Party. The party lost one of its seats when Widmer-Schlumpf  was elected to cabinet on the ticket and then broke away to form a new party.

A party that achieved almost 30% of the vote in the recent elections "should take on the responsibility", the paper said.

Widmer-Schlumpf’s party - the centre-right Conservative Democrats - got just 4.1% of the vote in the federal elections on October 18. The People's Party, meanwhile, recorded its highest ever share with 29.4%, leading to claims it should regain a second seat in the seven-person cabinet. The 246 members of the two chambers of parliament will elect the cabinet on December 9. 

The Tages-Anzeiger writes that the People’s Party needs to move away from oppositional behaviour. Collegiality is the name of the game in the Swiss cabinet, and with Widmer-Schlumpf gone, it has lost one of its most experienced and competent members of recent years, the paper says, making the task of working together across party lines even harder. 

By common agreement Switzerland's four main parties divide the seven cabinet seats according to a set formula determined ultimately by their strength at the ballot box.

The country is "indebted" to Widmer-Schlumpf, the Tages-Anzeiger noted, with a nod towards her handling of the banking secrecy crisis where Swiss banks were hit with unprecedented legal challenges from the United States for helping US clients evade taxes. It adds that she has earned her place "in the history books" as a finance minister and “crisis manager” who was fiercely independent and who showed leadership during turbulent times. A "bone-dry reformer" who took care of business in a "persistent and measured" way. 

Concern over the political climate

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung says her announcement was “a rational decision from a fighter”. We can only imagine how much this ambitious politician struggled with this choice, it writes, describing her as “capable and steadfast”, someone who defied party-political opposition. For these reasons, the paper determines that her cool-headed decision has earnt her even more respect. 

She was “instrumental”, a central actor in the tug-of-war between the centre-left and the centre-right. The paper recalls her comments at this year’s National Day celebrations in August: “The politics of extremism, the politics of polarisation, the politics of the shrill voices…have found more and more friends”.

The French-language paper 24Heures chimes in on a similar note, commenting that although the “lady from Graubünden” departs with a sense that “the job has been done”, there is also the feeling that she doubts she can “offer any added value in the current climate which is less open to compromise”. 

Collegiality in the cabinet is a concern for La Tribune de Genève which writes, "the new political balance of force in parliament and in the cabinet will make it increasingly difficult to reach consensus”. 

The Swiss should be saved from a re-run of the Blocher era in government, it continues. 

Widmer-Schlumpf caused a political sensation in December 2007 when she was chosen as a new cabinet minister to replace Christoph Blocher, the controversial billionaire figurehead of the People’s Party. He was voted out after only one term as justice minister.  

“The vast majority of Swiss voted for political groups other than the People’s Party,” it says. “The conservative right party now faces the responsibility of having to pick several candidates who will not turn into mavericks once elected.” 

In the French-speaking Le Temps, daily war terminology sets the mood for their view on where Widmer-Schlumpf’s announcement leaves the Swiss political landscape. 

“She managed to manoeuver her way through the battlefield left by her predecessor Christoph Blocher and take advantage of the chaos to push through necessary reforms,” it writes. 

“She can leave with the feeling of having accomplished her duty in so far as she cleaned up the Swiss financial sector, but her withdrawal now leaves the door wide open for the People’s Party, to whom it will be harder to refuse a second cabinet seat than in 2007.” 

But the paper said it is up to the party to prove that it is able to seize the opportunity without turning it into a combat scenario. The People’s Party must leave the battlefield in order to take on greater governmental responsibilities, and show it has gained a certain maturity in order to play a new role, it adds. 

The left-leaning Le Courrier goes even further with the statement that “Switzerland is now in for four years of reactionary and anti-social politics.” 

Less than flattering comparisons 

The Blick newspaper thanks Widmer-Schlumpf repeatedly on the front page for “looking after our money”, “defending our banks abroad” and finally for “resigning so confidently”. In a short opinion piece, the editor writes that Widmer-Schlumpf is as level-headed as his “old maths teacher”, “prudently” calculating and solitary. Her decision to stand down comes at a time that leaves everything open for the Swiss People’s Party, the piece adds. She was a politician who didn’t put her own ego above the wellbeing of the country, something again, to be thankful for. 

The Fribourg-based La Liberté writes that in eight years Widmer-Schlumpf has certainly proven, “like a Graubünden mountain goat”, that she was up for a fight against the Swiss People’s Party, old bankers and different political methods. Contrary to what was imagined, however, the pragmatic accountant who became a head of state knew she was about to be beaten.” 

Extending its animal-based analysis to the People’s Party, the paper wonders, “How can we believe that the wolf will turn into a lamb? Why would it give up its successful strategy with two front feet in the sheep pen and two outside?” 

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