Conservative Switzerland poised for majority female cabinet

22nd September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Switzerland's parliament voted Wednesday on a government reshuffle which could leave women in a majority of cabinet posts for the first time in the history of one Europe's most conservative countries.

Women only gained the vote at national level in 1971 and the first female minister was elected in 1984, but three of the seven ministerial posts are currently occupied by women.

The vote by parliament to replace two other ministers who are retiring, which was underway on Wednesday, is likely to see at least one and possibly both posts taken by women.

"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.

Socialist Party chief Christian Levrat said: "Once we have a majority of women, we'll have taken the the main, determining, step."

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

Six candidates are campaigning to replace Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz, a member of the centre-right Radical-Liberal 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 Radical Karin Keller-Sutter and Socialist Simonetta Sommaruga. The Socialists have lined up two female candidates.

"I know that big surprises are entertaining, but it won't happen," said Radical-Liberal chief Fulvio Pelli after overnight political bartering in a Bernese hotel traditionally known as the "night of the long knives."

Sciarini underlined that from the political shifts were not expected and the vote 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 nonetheless 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, opinion polls indicate that 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 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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