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Business urges voters to balance the books

Forget politics - it's the economy that counts, says Swiss business swissinfo.ch

Switzerland’s business community is trying to persuade voters to elect a parliament committed to cutting public spending and boosting deregulation.

This content was published on October 1, 2003 - 18:15

As the October 19 elections draw closer, business groups are urging a return to "fiscal balance" and closer ties with Europe.

“We’ve come seriously out of balance over the past ten years,” Rudolf Ramsauer, the chief executive of the Swiss Business Federation, told swissinfo.

“It’s absolutely essential that we return to fiscal and financial balance,” he said.

Such warnings are at the centre of the Swiss business community’s campaign pitch, which has included launching regular newspaper advertisements across the country.

Along with its traditional support for the centre-right Radical Party, Swiss business hopes to convince voters to steer clear of both the rightwing Swiss People’s Party and the centre-left Social Democrats.

Troubled centre

However, Ramsauer said polls showed that Switzerland’s centrist parties – which have been the traditional power base for business – could suffer losses at the ballot box.

“I think the centre parties have a problem,” said Ramsauer.

“And that’s basically because they have had, and may still have, a problem defining clear objectives,” he said.

“For instance on financial policy, it’s much clearer what the left and the right want than what the centre wants.”

In recent years, Switzerland’s most “corporate-friendly” party, the Radicals, has also suffered politically from its close links with big business.

Last year, the party’s former leader, Gerold Bührer, was forced to resign from the board of insurance giant Swiss Life, which was embroiled in a scandal over a secretive investment fund for its senior managers.

And with the Swiss economy turning sour and unemployment rising, many of the Radical’s opponents continue to remind voters of recent corporate failures such as the collapse of Swissair in 2001.

Reform agenda

Urs Roth, chief executive of the Swiss Bankers Association, said voters should focus on fundamentals.

“Whether [parliamentarians] come from one party or the other is not the issue. We need responsible people who will fight for the interests of Switzerland,” Roth said.

Ramsauer lists three priority areas for the coming parliament.

The first is an urgent need to maintain support for education and research.

“Switzerland has no natural resources. The only things we have are our skills, competence and matière grise (grey matter),” Ramsauer said.

Parliament this week voted to boost spending on research by five per cent a year, but many scientists and business people argue that the increase was not enough.

Second, business groups want the October elections to provide a fresh mandate for the further deregulation and liberalisation of public services.

The Europe question

The third priority is ensuring Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union remains on solid political ground.

Business leaders will be watching carefully for any signs of a deepening in anti-EU attitudes among voters.

Ramsauer said the EU’s pending enlargement would become a critical issue.

“I’m a bit nervous about the enlargement, which will mean we have to adjust our bilateral arrangements with the EU to enlarge free movement of people to Eastern European countries,” he said.

“That’s a debate we could never afford to lose because then the whole package of the bilateral agreements - which are the contractual basis of our relationship with the EU - would be brought into question.”

swissinfo, Jacob Greber in Zurich

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