Swiss politics in turmoil as parliament rejects Blocher

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Berne, December, 12, 2007- Switzerland was thrown into political turmoil Wednesday when parliament rejected controversial populist politician Christoph Blocher for a seat in the new government.

The Federal Assembly did re-elect six others to the seven-member Federal Council government, with Pascal Couchepin elected to take over the presidency for the year 2008.

But in two rounds of voting, the 246-member Federal Assembly denied Blocher the necessary absolute majority needed to confirm his seat in government, in which previously he had served as justice minister.

In his stead, fellow member of the nationalist-conservative Swiss Peoples Party (SVP), Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, was elected to the Federal Council.

But she immediately asked for time to consider whether to accept the post, with parliament then going into recess and due to reconvene on Thursday.

Besides Widmer-Schlumpf, parliament also approved the other SVP candidate, Defence Minister Samuel Schmid, for a post in the new government.

The developments brought to a head the increasing political tensions surrounding Blocher, who has stirred controversy with his hard-line views on foreigners and asylum-seekers.

Problematic for the Swiss political system, however, is the fact that his SVP emerged as the strongest single party in the October elections, with 29 per cent of the vote.

Two other co-ruling parties - the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats - had voiced their opposition to Blocher returning to government and it was on the strength of their votes in parliament Wednesday that he was denied a new seat.

But the SVP has threatened to go into opposition if parliament rejected Blocher, a threat which if carried out would throw the Swiss political establishment into its severest crisis in years.

Since 1959, four parties - the SVP, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Free Democrats - have virtually ruled the country together under Switzerland's federal system.

The way the scenario stood Wednesday afternoon, if Widmer-Schlumpf accepted her election to the government post, it would give the SVP its allotted two members in the cabinet, but the party itself would be in the opposition.

If she decides, under pressure from the SVP, to reject the position, then a third vote in the Federal Assembly would be taken on Thursday.

SVP party leader Ueli Maurer indicated that this would be the course taken: "We are coming back again with Blocher. There is no other candidate." dpa


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