Centre-left stays with social justice

The Social Democratic Party, one of the four main parties in Switzerland, says the fight for more social justice is its top policy issue.

This content was published on September 12, 2003 minutes

It is aiming for some 25 per cent of the vote in October’s elections to the House of Representatives and Senate, to bolster its position in parliament.

Hans-Jürg Fehr, a member of the House of Representatives and a party vice-president, says solidarity and social justice are two key values for the centre-left Social Democrats.

“Take the social insurance system, the younger generation contributing towards the pensions of the older generation. That’s an important sign of solidarity,” he told swissinfo.

Fehr adds that equal rights, freedom and democracy are also among the party’s main tenets. He says their importance can be seen in recent debates over access to postal services, telecommunications and public transport, as well as energy.

Labour roots

In a European context, Switzerland’s Social Democrats are closer to the Socialists in neighbouring France than to Britain’s Labour Party or the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

The main reason is Switzerland’s political system, which allows even a party that is represented in government to take a more radical position without being left on the opposition benches, according to Fehr.

Historically the Social Democratic Party is linked to the 19th-century labour movement. Fehr says there are still strong ties with the trade unions, and several Social Democratic union leaders sit in parliament.

“We are sisters of the same family and share a lot of political positions, for instance on the need for a solid welfare system.”

But the party has evolved from its beginnings over the past 115 years and turned towards consumers and the new middle class. This has also led to a shift towards more reformist politics.

Fehr says a mixture of pragmatism and ideology is necessary in Swiss politics. “We need clear positions at the beginning of the political process, but then we have to move forward and strike compromises to find solutions.”

Apparent divisions

But he denies a perception that the party is divided into a traditionalist and a reformist group as a result.

“We need different opinions and discussions in the party to be able to come up with solutions for increasingly complex issues”, Fehr continues. “We have put the days behind us when our leaders clashed in public, damaging the party’s image.

Political analyst Andreas Ladner from Bern university says the apparent split in the Social Democratic Party is less of a threat to the party than a wrangle about the party’s political orientation:

“The Social Democrats stand alone on their side, so they don’t really have an opponent to take votes away from them.”

However, Ladner says critics of the party leaders have a point when they accuse them of being too modest by aiming for a 25 per cent share of the vote, instead of trying to win extra votes from the struggling Christian Democrats and the Radicals.

“At the moment the other parties in the centre are rather weak and the Social Democrats could grow by up to 35 per cent.”

Dual role

As for the dual role as opposition and governing party regularly played by the Social Democrats, Fehr says Swiss voters can handle this concept.

“Elections are not as important in Switzerland as they are in other countries. It’s not about who’s going to be in government and who’s going to be the opposition.”

Consequently, he says, the nationwide votes on particular issues are nearly almost more significant for Swiss politics.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

The Social Democrats gained 22.5 per cent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, making them and the rightwing Swiss People’s Party the winners in 1999.
Their aim for 2003 is to increase their share of votes to some 25%.
The Social Democrats have 51 seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate, making them the second-biggest parliamentary group overall.
The party has had two members in the cabinet since 1959.
Switzerland’s Social Democratic Party was founded in 1888 as part of the labour movement. It now claims some 40,000 registered members across the country.

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