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Conservative Switzerland gets majority female cabinet

Switzerland’s parliament on Wednesday gave women 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 were occupied by women before the vote.

Parliamentarian Simonetta Sommaruga became the fourth female minister after being elected into office with 159 votes out of 245 to replace transport minister Moritz Leuenberger, a fellow Socialist, who will retire on October 31.

“I’m pleased that we will be working together and I accept my election,” Sommaruga told the session of both houses of parliament.

Socialist Party chief Christian Levrat said: “I’m pleased to have given Switzerland a majority of women in government, with 159 votes… it’s a triumph.”

Voting was also underway on Wednesday to replace Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz, of the centre-right Radical-Liberal Party, with two other women candidates standing against two men.

“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.

Women ministers are already dominant in governments in Finland, Cape Verde Islands, Spain, and Norway, according to the Inter Parliamentary Union.

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.

Replacements traditionally come from the same political parties.

“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 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 political 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.