Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf has announced she will not stand for re-election for a third term. She said she would remain in the post until the end of the year, after cabinet elections find a replacement on December 9.
"People have been asking me for eight years when I'm going to resign," she said at a packed media conference in Bern on Wednesday. She said she had decided, after speaking with her family, friends and colleagues, that now was the right time to go.
“There are other things I like doing very much and to which I haven’t been able to devote enough time over the past eight years. Now I plan to address that.”
Relaxed and witty, Widmer-Schlumpf, 59, said she had taken the decision on October 19, the day after federal elections in which her party, the centre-right Conservative Democratic Party, dwindled to 4.1% of the vote. This put additional pressure on her seat in the cabinet.
But that was not the decisive factor, she said. Working for the public in an executive had been a great privilege – she had always enjoyed her work – but it had always come at a cost. “In my special situation specially so.” This had been a burden on her family, she explained.
Her work was now done, she said, pointing to various achievements, including the strategy for Switzerland as a financial centre. “I don’t think I did my job so badly,” she concluded.
For its part, the Swiss Bankers Association said Widmer-Schlumpf had been an accessible, dossier-focused business partner. She had recognised early on that the automatic exchange of information would become the norm, it said in a statement on Wednesday.
Widmer-Schlumpf assured a concerned journalist she would not get bored, but did not give any detailed plans for the future apart from following politics “from a distance”. She hoped the big problems facing Switzerland would be solved and not simply “cultivated”.
A political earthquake hit Switzerland on December 12, 2007. Christoph Blocher, the controversial billionaire figurehead of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party who had succeeded in little more than a decade in turning the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party into the largest in Switzerland, was voted out after only one term as justice minister.
The political horse-trading among the centrist and leftwing parties had worked: Blocher became only the fourth cabinet minister in Swiss history to fail to win re-election and Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, then 51 and then still a member of the People’s Party, took her seat in cabinet on January 1, 2008.
Although she was unknown to the public, she was far from a political novice, having gathered government experience at a cantonal level by heading the Graubünden finance department for almost ten years.
She had grown up with politics – her father, Leon Schlumpf, was a cabinet minister for the People’s Party between 1979 and 1987 – and she knew how the machinery of government worked.
She also knew what the consequences would be when she accepted election to the cabinet. The People’s Party never forgot or forgave her act of “betrayal” and, unable to kick her out of the party, the party leadership decided to exclude the entire Graubünden cantonal section. This section then formed the Conservative Democratic Party and was joined by the Bern section of the People’s Party, of which then Defence Minister Samuel Schmid was a member.
“It wasn’t the first time that an official candidate or outgoing minister wasn’t re-elected – Blocher had himself beaten the Christian Democrat Ruth Metzler in 2003,” Georg Lutz, a political scientist at the University of Lausanne, tells swissinfo.ch.
“But the exceptional thing about the nomination of Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf was that it resulted in the creation of a new political party.”
But the fact that she was representing a minority party in parliament didn’t discourage her. On the contrary, the adversity stimulated her.
She had a hesitant start, being responsible during her first three years for immigration policy, but in September 2008, a twist of fate propelled her to the front of the political stage.
Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz had a heart attack and Widmer-Schlumpf stepped in for him, juggling the justice and finance portfolios (Merz returned to work a couple of weeks later, retiring in 2010).
It was in effect Widmer-Schlumpf who was called upon to oversee the bailout of Switzerland’s biggest bank, UBS, which was facing bankruptcy as a result of overexposure to the US subprime market.
She reacted well to this crisis, reckoned Lutz. This was also the case in 2012, in the “Hildebrand Affair”, when the chairman of the Swiss National Bank (SNB), Philipp Hildebrand, resigned amid a controversy over private currency deals.
“She supported the chairman of the SNB until his resignation appeared inevitable. Even if she wasn’t able to dodge criticism, she took a good line in this affair,” according to Lutz.
In 2010, following the retirement of Hans-Rudolf Merz, Widmer-Schlumpf found her true place at the heart of the cabinet. She inherited the finance ministry, a perfect fit for her, where she would have the chance to implement her most significant reforms.
Under international pressure, notably from the United States, Switzerland was forced to give up a lot of ground on banking secrecy, judged “non-negotiable” by her predecessors.
In December 2012, after the failure of the so-called Rubik accords (on regulating previously non-declared, untaxed funds deposited by foreign nationals in Switzerland while preserving client anonymity), Widmer-Schlumpf triggered an outcry among politicians on the right and bankers by opening the way to the exchange of data concerning foreign clients of Swiss banks.
“She played a central role in this very quick paradigm shift. Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf brought this new strategy to the heart of the cabinet and in front of parliament,” Lutz said.
The Swiss Bankers’ Association ended up coming round to these new standards. The automatic exchange of information, for a long time considered something for the distant future, will become reality in 2018.
“It’s the biggest reform of the past 80 years [banking secrecy was codified in Swiss law in 1934],” said Christophe Darbellay, president of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party and one of the main architects of Widmer-Schlumpf’s election and re-election to the cabinet.
Widmer-Schlumpf will also be remembered for being member of a cabinet that decided to phase out nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
“She definitely contributed to getting a majority, but her role wasn’t as decisive as with banking secrecy,” Lutz said.
A believer in transparency and fiscal equity, Widmer-Schlumpf has not hesitated to brand as “unfair” the system of tax perks for rich foreigners which she nevertheless had to defend on behalf of the cabinet last year ahead of a people’s initiative.
In other dossiers, she resembled a more traditional Swiss finance minister. “She kept government debt at an extremely low level compared with other European countries and initiated economic measures at the heart of the administration, thus following traditional middle-class policies,” Lutz said.
Appreciated by the left for her attachment to institutions and by the centre-right for her budgetary policies and fiscal rigour, Widmer-Schlumpf has always enjoyed high levels of popularity among the public – People’s Party voters aside.
As the newspaper Le Temps recently noted, her record at the ballot box is 11 wins out of 11.
“Very pragmatic, solid on all levels, she has made very few mistakes. Her communication style, devoid of all emotion, has been greatly appreciated too,” said Georg Lutz.
At most, she can be accused of a lack of charisma. There are no unforgettable memories from her year in the rotating Swiss presidency in 2012, which was marked by dry and often highly technical speeches.
However, what impressed observers was her work ethic and knowledge of her dossiers. That said, she could appear uncompromising – not to say cold – when she was sure she was right, according to the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.
For example, when she arrived at the Department of Justice and Police, she didn’t waste any time clearing out the many staff who were loyal to her arch-enemy Christoph Blocher.
On a more personal level, Widmer-Schlumpf’s tenacity and resistance has often been attributed to her mountain origins. But family events have also shaped her life: the death of her sister in a car accident in 1983 and the serious heart problems of her youngest daughter as a baby undoubtedly influenced her political career.
“When something like that happens to you, you put everything else in perspective,” she told the magazine L’Illustré in 2013.
Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf was born on March 16, 1956, in Felsburg, canton Graubünden. She is married with three children and four grandchildren.
She received her degree in law at the University of Zurich in 1981 and a doctorate in 1990. She worked as a lawyer from 1987 to 1998.
She was elected to the district court of Trin in 1985, presiding from 1991 to 1997. As a member of the Swiss People’s Party, in 1998 she was elected to the cantonal government, acting as president in 2001 and 2005.
In 2007, she became the sixth woman to be elected to cabinet, taking office on January 1, 2008. The People’s Party pushed her out and she ended up, with her cabinet colleague Samuel Schmid, in the more moderate Conservative Democratic Party.
Adapted from French by Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch and agencies