Women battle to become Zurich's next mayor

Candidates Kathrin Martelli (left) and Corine Mauch Keystone

Switzerland's largest city and financial centre, Zurich, will see its first female mayor elected on Sunday after the surprise departure of the current post-holder.

This content was published on February 4, 2009 - 09:41

Voters will choose between two inexperienced candidates from the left and right political wings. The campaign has been dominated by themes of gender and sexuality, as one nominee is openly gay.

The office of mayor in Zurich is a largely ceremonial position wielding less power than in London, Berlin, New York or Paris. Besides presiding over the city's cultural department, the mayor acts as its principal ambassador.

The position was made vacant when the flamboyant long-serving mayor Elmar Ledergerber unexpectedly announced late last year that he would stand down to spend more time with his family.

Corine Mauch, 48, of the centre-left Social Democrat party is considered to be marginally ahead of Kathrin Martelli, 56, who represents a coalition of centre-right parties. Compared with the conservative canton, Zurich city parliament has a more liberal administration.

In a relatively uneventful election campaign, both candidates said they would like to improve the quality of social housing in the city and to have more childcare places made available. Unlike Martelli, Mauch has never previously held held executive roles in the city council and neither of them, unlike Ledergerber, have made their mark in the private sector.

Big shoes to fill

Political analyst Michael Hermann of Zurich University said the new appointment – whoever it is - would herald a complete change of atmosphere in the mayor's office.

"They do not look like the prime candidates that perhaps people were hoping for and they will not generate as many news headlines as Ledergerber," he told swissinfo. "But their strengths are that they are both integrative and open. It is important to be able to work with all sides in a multi-party government."

Despite fears that they would struggle to fill the shoes of Ledergerber as a business and tourism ambassador, Hermann believes Zurich is ready for a change of style. "Many people have had enough of the showman style of mayor and think it would be better to have someone more subdued," he said.

Media headlines have focussed more on the candidates' gender and sexuality than their policies. Comparisons have been made between Mauch and the successful mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, who is also openly gay.

"Being a lesbian could be an advantage. Zurich has a large gay community and the city people generally want to show you that they open minded," Hermann said.

Symbolic move

The election of a woman to the post of mayor is seen as a shift in Zurich's political identity. Unlike the federal and cantonal administrations, which are governed by committee with a rotating presidency, city mayors are elected as heads of the council.

Hermann believes this plays a significant symbolic role, even if it comes with no special executive powers.

"The post of elected head of government is filled by men most of the time. You are more exposed than if you are part of a collective government," he said.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

Women in Swiss politics

Women were awarded the right to vote in Switzerland in 1971.

Women make up about 26% in parliaments on a federal and cantonal level. Only 31 women serve as members of the country's cantonal governments (out of 156 cabinet posts).

Yvette Jaggi was the first woman mayor of a major Swiss city. She led the city of Lausanne between 1990 and 1998.

On a federal level, Switzerland has only had a total of six women ministers in its 160-year history.

There are currently three women in the seven-member Swiss government: Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, Economics Minister Doris Leuthard and Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf.

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