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Populist-right firebrand Christoph Blocher clings to Swiss spotlight

Populist pontificator Christoph Blocher, known for his virulent campaigns against immigration, the European Union and Islam, is not running in Switzerland’s upcoming elections, but remains the country’s most talked-about politician.

In Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and also in smaller communities, Blocher has tirelessly been making the rounds to rally the crowds in the run-up to Switzerland’s October 18 parliamentary elections.

The 75-year-old multi-billionaire, vice-president of the populist rightwing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), can energise a crowd like no other in the wealthy Alpine nation, not generally known for the charisma of its politicians.

The strong man of Switzerland’s populist right has been shaking the country’s tradition of moderation and consensus since he first stormed onto the national stage when he joined parliament in 1979 as an opposition figure, whipping up fears about outside threats.

The son of a Protestant preacher and the seventh of 11 children, Blocher is widely credited with bankrolling the SVP and transforming it from a rural group into a powerful political machine anchored to the hard right, and today, Switzerland’s largest party.

– ‘Eliminate the chaos’ –

Until the 1990s, the SVP was the smallest of Switzerland’s four leading parties, with just around 10 percent of the vote, but since then it has soared to first place, taking 26.6 percent in the elections four years ago.

Blocher has helped cement SVP’s brand of populist nationalism focused heavily on purported threats from immigrants, in a country where a quarter of the population are foreign nationals.

Europe’s current migrant crisis has given the party an additional boost, as it warns that the so far modest numbers of migrants and refugees arriving in Switzerland are set to balloon.

Blocher says the SVP is on the only party that can solve the “asylum problem”, by tightening Switzerland’s already-strict laws on the subject.

“We have a lot of people coming to Switzerland who are not real refugees… We don’t have room for them,” Blocher said at a rally in Lausanne.

Other SVP members shy away from comparisons with France’s far-right Front National for fear of being thought too extreme but Blocher rejects the idea for quite a different reason.

Compared to SVP, the Front National “is a leftwing party,” he told AFP.

When speaking to the crowds, Blocher likes to vaunt his past business achievements, including taking over a small chemicals firm in the early 1980s and turning it into a successful international business, now run by his daughter Magdalena — one of his four children.

But he is most renowned for his political successes, including his 1986 campaign to keep Switzerland out of the United Nations — though the country did finally join in 2002.

Blocher has also rallied against closer ties with the EU, spearheading the successful 1992 campaign against Swiss membership of the European Economic Area.

And last year he helped secure a narrow referendum win ordering restrictions on immigration from the EU — upsetting relations with Switzerland’s biggest trading partner.

Playing on security fears, he also took the lead in SVP’s party’s successful 2009 campaign to ban the building of new mosque minarets, and the push a year later to automatically expel foreigners convicted of certain crimes.

– Confrontation, bluster –

A lawyer by training and an admirer of Winston Churchill, the white-haired Swiss-German politician has long been known for his blustering speeches.

But when he was finally elected to join the Swiss government — the seven-member Federal Council — in 2003, he still shocked many with his confrontational style.

He was accused of not fitting into the Swiss government system, where ministers are drawn from all the major parties and are meant to seek consensus and stability.

In 2007, the Swiss parliament, which picks the government ministers, did not reelect him.

The SVP was furious and excluded its members chosen to hold the party’s two allotted seats in government.

Switzerland’s largest party was left out in the cold, although it managed to regain one of the seats a year later.

Blocher decried the parliament’s move as anti-democratic, and in 2011, he announced he would stop “wasting my time in parliament”, and left.

He may not be running in Sunday’s polls but Blocher — a born showman who struts the stage at rallies, gesticulating as he vaunts his achievements — remains the most visible face of SVP’s campaign.

At the Lausanne rally, he boasts that during his four years as justice minister, the number of asylum requests to Switzerland fell from 20,000 to 10,000.

In comparison, Switzerland this year expects to receive some 30,000 asylum requests.