Conservative Switzerland set to pick majority female cabinet

22nd September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Switzerland is set to take a historic step on Wednesday when it reshuffles its cabinet, with a majority of women likely to hold cabinet positions for the first time in the traditionally-minded country.

Women only gained the vote at national level in 1971 and the first female minister was elected in 1984.

But a vote by parliament to replace two ministers is likely to see at least one and possibly both in the seven-member Federal Council taken by women, joining three existing women ministers.

"Symbolically, it is a rather powerful message from a country with a conservative reputation to have four or five women out of the seven seats in the government," said Pascal Sciarini, who heads the political science institute in the University of Geneva.

"That would be unique in the world," he added.

Under Switzerland's unique and complex system, government ministers are chosen by a vote of both houses of parliament. There is no prime minister.

Six candidates are campaigning to replace Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz, a member of the centre-right Radical Party, and Socialist Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger, who are resigning.

Replacements traditionally come from the same political parties and the hopefuls include four women, notably current favourites Karin Keller-Sutter and Simonetta Sommaruga.

Sciarini underlined that from the political point of view, the election "would not change anything" and would result in "hardly any impact on the functioning of Switzerland."

Under a decades-old tacit political agreement known as the Magic Formula, the biggest political parties share seats in the Federal Council.

However, Sciarini noted that for Switzerland, "it would be a good occasion to change its image as a conservative, opportunistic and macho country."

"A female majority at the Federal Council used to seem just a while ago to be pure science fiction," noted the weekly L'Hebdo in an editorial.

The magazine nonethless also pointed out that four out of five top civil servants in the federal administration, who hold real power and who remain in place longer than politicians, are male.

Men also dominate management positions in companies, unions and universities. Among higher education institutions in Switzerland, only the University of Neuchatel has a female rector.

At the same time, public opinion polls indicate that the Swiss society has swiftly opened up to female leaders since women belatedly gained equal politcal rights.

A survey in the newspaper Sonntagszeitung indicated that 76 percent of Swiss approve of a female majority in government, while 83 percent of those polled said that the gender of candidates is of no consequence.

This marks a "sign of maturity" of the Swiss society, said Arielle Wagenknecht, of the Swiss Association of Female University Graduates.

The candidates "are personalities who have not arrived by chance. They seem to be extremely competent, they are valid candidates and they just happen to be women," she said.

© 2010 AFP

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