Swiss far-right wins seat in Federal Council

10th December 2008, Comments 0 comments

Hardline conservative Ueli Maurer narrowly won a seat in the Federal Cabinet with 122 votes and will head the defence ministry next year.

GENEVA – The far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) regained its place in government Wednesday as lawmakers elected a hardline conservative known for his anti-EU views to the ruling Federal Council.

Ueli Maurer scraped the required majority of 122 votes out of 243 after three rounds of tense voting in parliament and will take his seat as defence minister when the new Council takes office in January.

"This is a 'yes' vote for our political system," he said in parliament immediately after his election.

"I am happy that the people who voted for our party will once again be represented in the government."

Switzerland's seven-member Federal Council is set up, according to the so-called "magic formula" in place since 1959, to guarantee stability with right and left-wing ministers from the four main parties running the country side by side without a prime minister.

The vote comes almost a year to the day after SVP strongman Christoph Blocher was ousted from the Council in a move that sent shockwaves through the usually placid Swiss political system.

The 68-year-old billionaire industrialist and preacher's son has dominated political life for over a decade, transforming the SVP from a small, rural party into a formidable political machine firmly anchored to the far-right.

But Blocher's abrasive style and crude rhetoric appalled his opponents across the political spectrum, particularly during the 2007 election campaign when the SVP took a provocative stance on immigration and generated reams of critical coverage in foreign media.

He was effectively ousted last December by left-wing and centre-right lawmakers who elected a more "moderate" SVP member in his place, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who was subsequently expelled from the party and now represents the new Bourgeois Democratic bloc.

Maurer, 58, is the former SVP chairman and very much cut from the same cloth as Blocher, which could well mean similar tensions would resurface once the new Federal Council takes office.

"This is not a blank cheque but a last chance for the SVP to change its behaviour," warned Dominique de Burman, vice-chairman of the centre-right Christian Democrat party.

Maurer's past behaviour certainly suggests he could raise eyebrows within a government traditionally based on consensus.

A vocal conservative, he has publicly denounced working mothers as "the downfall of our society”.

Maurer has also been at the forefront of the SVP's anti-immigration campaigns and the unsuccessful referendum to tighten up naturalisation procedures.

He is a vocal opponent of Switzerland extending labour market access to citizens of new EU member states Bulgaria and Romania.

The father-of-six from Zurich describes himself as the "son of a peasant" and cultivates a down-to-earth image, including being president of the Swiss Vegetable Farmers Association.

But he also revels in media notoriety for his provocative outbursts, as epitomised by his infamous comment: "As long as I keep using the word 'Negro', the cameras will stay trained on me."

[AFP / Expatica]

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