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A Swiss on the Democratic campaign trail

Dual national Vinz Koller is a consummate Democrat

(swissinfo.ch)

Swiss-American Vinz Koller, chairman of Monterey County Democratic Party, tells swissinfo about life on the political frontline ahead of the US mid-term elections.

Koller criticises the Bush administration and the religious right, and explains why the Democrats now need tougher policies and a new direction.

swissinfo: Critical United States mid-term congressional elections are taking place on November 7, in which the Republicans risk losing their majorities in the two houses. How do you think the Democrats will fare?

Vinz Koller: I am reluctant to give predictions as they have proved to be wrong in the past. It's clear that the Republicans are running scared after the recent scandals and because their Iraq policy is no longer popular.

The Democrats are working to see that this one-party nation gets a proper opposition. We hope to secure a majority in the House of Representatives and it's possible that we could even gain control of both chambers.

swissinfo: You are in charge of the Democratic election campaign in Monterey County in California. What kind of campaign is it – full of scandals about political opponents?

V.K.: We are definitely against smear campaigns. We don't want to get into that kind of politics. Our approach is to knock at people's doors and present our ideas to get them to come down and vote.

We are trying to present new policies such as social justice and a withdrawal from Iraq. Although many Republicans now oppose the war in Iraq, they link it to their security fears. We are convinced that Iraq has not made the US a safer place.

swissinfo: What would you say to those Europeans who claim that there is not much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans?

V.K.: I can understand that for a long time people from outside and also from inside the US have not been able to differentiate. But it's clear that if Al Gore had been president the Iraq war would never have occurred and if John Kerry had beaten Bush in 2004 things would have turned out quite differently.

Of course many Democrats also supported the war in Iraq because they were afraid to be thought of as unpatriotic. And they believed what our government told them about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction.

swissinfo: From Europe it sometimes seems that the Democrats are struggling with subjects such as the death penalty, abortion and gun laws. Is this a false impression?

V.K.: No. It's partly true, but political parties are not popular movements. The mood of the population must first shift before a party can include a theme in its election campaign.

But Democrats now realise that we shouldn't hesitate when dealing with this administration. Things must be clear and politically to the point.

Political campaigns are fought based on values as well as actions. For over 20 years the Republicans have used simple language to communicate in a down-to-earth, catchy and simple fashion. They talk about a culture of life when they mean abortion, and about the traditional family when it's about homosexuality.

The Democrats must learn a new language, but not that of the Republicans, which smacks of moral double standards.

swissinfo: The current administration has introduced a kind of religious fundamentalism into US politics. Do the Democrats feel under pressure to embrace religious values?

V.K.: Democrats have to look carefully at the question of values; there are positive religious values, such as loving one's neighbour, helping the poor and peacemaking.

The Republican Party has associated itself with the religious fundamentalists, and I feel they represent the wrong doctrine. It's terrifying that fundamentalist movements can have such an influence on US politics.

As an American citizen who came here 20 years ago, it's worrying to think that people outside the US are afraid of the country where I live.

swissinfo: Is US politics able to function without religion?

V.Z.: Religion plays an important role. The Democrats believed for a long time that politics should be free of religion. But many voters decide according to their values.

I can see the danger of a country being run according to Christian nationalistic values, which are actually contrary to the fundamental principles of the US. The present administration uses fundamentalist religious language to win voters. I consider that dangerous for the US.

swissinfo-interview: Gaby Ochsenbein

US congressional elections

On November 7 all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested in midterms.

There will also be races for 36 of the 50 state governorships, known as gubernatorial elections.

Republicans have controlled both chambers since 1994, except for a brief time when Democrats held the Senate. According to polls, the Republicans are expected to lose seats.

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Key facts

80% of US citizens believe that religion is important.
76% are Christians.
12% of Christians consider themselves fundamentalists.
22% of Christians consider themselves evangelicals.
Number of Swiss living abroad (end of 2005): 634,216.
Number of Swiss in Europe: 383,548.
Number of Swiss in US: 71,773 (San Francisco: 15,703; Los Angeles: 10,422).

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Vinz Koller

Born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland in 1963.

Studied for a Master of Arts in International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in political science and English at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Works as a sociologist and consultant for workforce development agencies throughout the US.

Became a US citizen in 2002.

Has led the Monterey County Democratic Party election campaigns since 2004.

Became Chairman of Monterey County Democratic Party in July 2006.

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