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Swiss far-right seeks comeback in government

GENEVA – The cosy world of Swiss politics may be shaken up Wednesday as a key player in the country’s main far-right party bids to make a comeback in government in a move that could threaten its collegial model.

Christoph Blocher of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is seeking re-election to a seat on the governing Federal Council, seen as a test of his opponents’ resolve a year after the outspoken strongman was turfed out.

Lawmakers will gather in the capital Bern to elect a new member to the Council to replace former defence minister Samuel Schmid, who was expelled from the SVP in the fallout over Blocher’s ouster when he opted to stay in government.

Swiss political conventions, however, dictate Schmid should be replaced by another member of his original party, but the SVP upset that collegial system by declaring itself "in opposition" after Blocher’s humiliation.

The 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.

However, this formula has now run its course amid increasing divergence and bitterness between the parties, political scientist Pascal Sciarini said.

"The uncertainty which abounds is linked to the polarisation of political debate and the difficulty of the Socialist Party and the SVP governing together," he told AFP.

"The issue is whether the parties who threw out Blocher in 2007 will confirm they’re willing to carry on governing without the SVP."

Blocher himself has played a large part in polarising Swiss politics.

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.

The SVP obtained 29 percent of the vote in 2007 parliamentary elections.

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

Blocher was effectively ousted in a "palace coup" 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.

Furious at Blocher’s ouster, the SVP vowed it would go into opposition and exploit Switzerland’s system of direct democracy and popular referendums to harry ministers and block government initiatives.

However, this approach has yielded only mixed results, with voters notably rejecting SVP proposals for tough new naturalisation laws for foreigners during a June referendum.

In an uncompromising gesture, the SVP has put forward a "slate" for the Federal Council elections of Blocher and the hard-line former party chairman Ueli Maurer.

In a bid to prevent any repeat of Widmer-Schlumpf’s surprise election last year, the SVP has warned that any of its lawmakers elected in place of the duo will be excluded from the party.

Maurer, 58, makes no secret of his social conservatism and has in the past denounced working mothers as "the downfall of our society".

[AFP / Expatica]