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Geneva seeks end to political logjam

Geneva's parliament will be renewed on Sunday Keystone

Geneva goes to the ballot box on Sunday to elect a new parliament that many hope will shake the canton out of its political torpor.

Beneath the surface of its well polished international veneer, Geneva is struggling to cope with a chronic housing shortage, high unemployment and crippling finances.

Political paralysis set in four years ago when the Left lost control of parliament as the rightwing Swiss People’s Party made a grand entry, winning ten seats.

Since then both the Right and Left have been locked in a political version of trench warfare, with progress blocked on a number of crucial issues.

“There is a lack of long-term thinking and a total inability to find consensus on how to solve the housing crisis and the unemployment situation,” Stéphane Bussard, a journalist with Le Temps newspaper, told swissinfo.

Bussard, who has written a book on the current malaise gripping Geneva, says the lack of progress has caused a rift between the canton’s international and local communities.

Evidence of frustration at the strong foreign presence in the city could be seen in last month’s nationwide vote on allowing workers from the ten new European Union countries into the Swiss labour market.

Several city districts and communes around the canton came out against the move, following strong campaigning by an unlikely union between the rightwing People’s Party and the Leftwing Alliance.

“Genevans are not xenophobic but they are experiencing an identity crisis and part of the population has turned against foreigners because of the lack of a response from politicians,” explained Bussard.

Burning issues

And there is no shortage of issues that need addressing. Geneva’s unemployment rate is by some margin the highest in the country at 7.1 per cent – almost double the national average of 3.6 per cent.

Unfortunately the canton cannot throw money at the problem as it doesn’t have any. It is around SFr12 billion ($9.4 billion) in debt and it expects to post a budget deficit of around SFr300 million next year.

As for the housing market, the situation remains desperate. The vacancy rate for houses and apartments stands at a miserable 0.15 per cent.

All this in a Geneva that was anointed the second best place to live in the world in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Liveability Ranking”, published this week.

According to Bussard, the local population’s growing sense of injustice is not helped by the sparkling array of international organisations and the 35,000 diplomats and staff that frequent them.

“Today I think there are two Genevas that live alongside each other with a certain indifference,” he said.

“On the one hand you have international Geneva, with its organisations and businesses straddling the world stage; on the other you have a significant part of the population that finds itself excluded from this.”

Troubled times

In a swipe at one of its more illustrious tenants, the World Trade Organization, the city has even declared itself a “Gats-Free” zone.

Geneva is one of more than 70 areas in Switzerland that have taken issue with the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats), an international agreement that came into effect in 1995 and which operates under the umbrella of the WTO.

Critics say Gats threatens the right to maintain basic public services such as education, water and health – something the WTO denies. A major international demonstration against the agreement is due to take place in Geneva on Saturday October 15.

Whether the election of a new parliament will herald a shift in the prevailing wind in the canton is open to question.

Political scientist Pascal Sciarini fears that those voters who came out against the EU labour accord could once again be drawn towards parties on the extremes of the political Left and Right.

“If these voters come out in force, the polarisation and fragmentation of the political forces in Geneva will continue to get worse,” he said.

And Sciarini is not alone in his assessment. Bussard says the probability that it will be a case of status quo come Monday is high.

“I’m not sure that this election will change anything,” he said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

Geneva statistics:

Population: 428,000.
Jobless rate: 7.1%.
Housing vacancy rate: 0.15%.
Average monthly earnings: SFr6,062 ($4,740).
Exports: SFr10.465 billion.
Imports : SFr7.772 billion.

On Sunday voters in Geneva will choose a new 100-strong parliament.

There are 376 candidates, including 129 women, representing ten parties ranging from the communists on the extreme Left to the rightwing Geneva Citizen Movement.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR