Fifteen years after leaving government, Adolf Ogi is still a strong believer in consensus democracy. Politicians listening to one another, looking for answers together, putting the country first – this remains the Swiss elder statesman’s political credo.
Yet this kind of thinking leaves the still popular 72-year-old pretty much isolated in his own political fold, the conservative right Swiss People’s Party. In this election year the party hopes for continued success with popular initiatives of a distinctly right-wing conservative tint that are a political headache to implement.
swissinfo.ch: Your father was for many years a local mayor in Kandersteg, a village at the foot of the Bernese Alps. What was your earliest awareness of direct democracy?
Adolf Ogi: My father served his community, first as a member of the school board, then as its chairman. He was also part-time treasurer of the municipality – the finances of Kandersteg were managed in our living room! Later he became chair of the town council, and then mayor.
As a boy, I saw how he used to prepare for town hall meetings at home. I realised that he exercised leadership through the town hall meeting [at which citizens get to vote on current local issues]. The meeting decided whether to accept what the town council and the mayor were proposing to them. The next morning, over breakfast, father would talk about how things had gone.
swissinfo.ch: When you look back at your work as a politician, which aspects have been influenced by your mountain origins?
A.O.: Well, here is a story that may answer your question. In the year 2000, when I took on the role of Swiss president for the second time, the government decided to propose the Jungfrau/Aletsch region for adoption as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But at the UNESCO annual meeting in New York in 2000, when I pitched the proposal to the then director-general, a Japanese, I found I was talking to a brick wall. So I changed tactics and offered to let him fly over this wonderful place for a whole day in a helicopter of the Swiss Army. (I was defence minister too at the time.) His eyes lit up. After the flight he was so enthused that it was only a question of time before we secured this "Nobel prize for nature" for our region.
So, success depended on the “show-and-tell” approach. I was inspired to use this approach by my own father, when he showed me the barriers to prevent avalanches which he had had built up above the village. Those were formative experiences for me.
swissinfo.ch: In your home town, are there still enough people standing for election to public office?
A.O.: That has taken a negative turn. At the last town meeting, one of the municipal councillors resigned and no substitute has been found so far. The parties and groups should have been able to agree on a suitable person to bring the council back up to strength as soon as possible.
When I started to become aware of politics as a boy growing up in the 1950s, things were different. In Kandersteg there were no parties, but it was a political duty to make yourself available to the municipality, the public and the locality.
swissinfo.ch: Up till about 20 years ago consensus was still the watchword of Swiss politics. How did this consensus politics work?
A.O.: In my time in Bern it was easier to govern. That was even true of the People’s Party, of which I was president. Consensus was sought and compromises were crafted. In parliament, we party presidents met regularly and looked for solutions that were in the interests of the country. It only worked because we were able to listen to each other and put party interests aside.
swissinfo.ch: Popular initiatives in this country are increasingly part of the election campaign. Does this right of the people need reform?
A.O.: In politics, there are windows of opportunity. In my view, it’s not the right time to tinker with the legislation on initiatives. We’ve got other priorities: after the February 2014 initiative [to restrict immigration, approved in a nationwide vote], we need to find a solution with the European Union.
swissinfo.ch: Do we need to strengthen the system of checks and balances between government, parliament, the parties, the private sector, interest groups and the courts so as to encourage balance, reasonableness, stability and continuity in our decision-making processes?
A.O.: I notice a tendency towards radical thinking – on the left, I suppose too, but mostly on the right. I am against any kind of radical approach. The common good, living together, looking for solutions – these things are being forgotten right now. There is a need for people at the top of the political parties who can turn that trend around.
swissinfo.ch: Yet the voters’ repeated willingness to go for polarising popular initiatives that are a headache to put into practice seems to express a mistrust of establishment politics. How can that trust be won back?
A.O.: There is no answer to that question, there can only be hope that it will happen. Looking at the coming negotiations with the EU, it needs to happen. If there is no agreement on a solution-oriented position, things will get very tough.
The federal elections scheduled for autumn 2015 are already casting a long shadow – the election campaign is being fought in parliament and even within the government. But then the government only has one year to negotiate with Brussels about the implementation of last February’s initiative. That is very, very little time.
swissinfo.ch: The government needs to keep a cool head in these hectic times. How important is the factor of calmness in politics, especially after something like last February’s decision?
A.O.: Calmness – one could also call it slowness – has always been a great help to us in finding the right solutions. Firing from the hip is not good in a direct democracy. If you approach things too brashly you don’t always get the best result, as the record shows.
As regards our position with Europe, one could in fact see our slowness as a positive thing. We have not joined the EU or the euro, but we have come through the recent crises quite well. We owe much of our prosperity and progress since 1848 [when the modern Swiss confederation was founded] to the slow pace of direct democracy. We have four cultures, four languages, 26 cantons, about 3,000 local governments, and we’re a people which has lived in peace and freedom since 1848 – that is a world record and an incredible achievement, which makes us a model for Europe.
A career in politics and sport
Born in 1942 in Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland, Adolf Ogi graduated with a diploma in business. Since 1992 he has been an honorary citizen of Kandersteg.
Before he went into politics Ogi was managing director of Intersport Schweiz Holding AG, a company dealing in sporting goods. From 1969 to 1981 he served as technical director and director of the Swiss Ski Association.
He made himself a national name in 1972 as leader of the very successful Swiss delegation at the Sapporo Winter Olympics. The Swiss athletes won 10 medals.
In 1979 the political newcomer first got elected to parliament, running for the Swiss People’s Party. In 1984 he became party president. From 1987 to 2000 Ogi was a member of the Swiss government; he served as its president in 1993 and 2000. Afterwards he was appointed " Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace" by the UN (2001-2007).
Ogi versus Blocher
Former government minister and People’s Party president Adolf Ogi, a convinced advocate of consensus democracy, is the main opponent inside the party of right-wing strongman Christoph Blocher. When Blocher was president of the Zurich wing of the party from 1977 to 2003, he steered the People’s Party on a hard-line conservative and isolationist course. Following Blocher’s announcement last summer of a party-sponsored initiative to put "national law before international law", Ogi gave a newspaper interview in which he called on "reasonable" party members to "stop Blocher".
In the run-up to the vote on the anti-immigration Ecopop initiative in November 2014, Ogi repeated his blunt criticism of the People’s Party leadership for not calling cantonal branches to order when they advocated a “yes” vote against the official position of the national party. "This makes Christoph Blocher look like a coach-driver who no longer has control of his horses", Ogi said on Swiss television.
Ogi got about 500 letters about this. "98% of the reactions were positive, and a lot of them came from rank-and-file People’s Party members and voters", he recalls. Blocher responded to his opponent with withering scorn in a speech before a public meeting in Chur. Further sparring between the two political heavyweights seems inevitable.
(Translated from German by Terence MacNamee), swissinfo.ch