Christian Democrats seek political salvation

Vice-president Doris Leuthard is holding the fort in the interim Keystone Archive

Last weekend was supposed to have seen the centre-right Christian Democrats elect a new party president.

This content was published on February 10, 2004 - 15:22

But with no candidates to choose from, the leadership vote has been postponed until September.

The failure to find a president is the latest in a string of setbacks to have bedevilled the party.

In last October's parliamentary elections its share of the vote shrank to a record low; then in December, one of the Christian Democrats' two cabinet ministers was ousted from the government.

This double defeat prompted the party president, Philipp Stähelin, to step down before Christmas.

In the meantime the favourite for the job of party boss, vice-president Doris Leuthard, has agreed to act as interim leader. But, according to political analyst Jeremias Blaser, she is unlikely to take on the job full time.

“She has already ruled herself out in the past by saying she was not ready to give up her job as a lawyer to be party president,” he told swissinfo.

“I think she’ll remain as an interim president and then step aside once the party has found someone willing to take on the role.”

Limbo

Blaser says the leadership limbo in which the Christian Democrats currently find themselves has forced the party to re-examine what it stands for and where it wants to go next.

Some favour a shift further to the Right, while others would like the party to move more to the Left.

Blaser believes it would be unwise for anyone with political ambitions to take over the reins of the party before its future political direction is decided.

“A party president should be a unifying figure,” he said. “The risky part of this job is someone has to take it on while there is a battle going on between the Right and Left.

“The danger then is that the president gets caught up in those struggles, fails to achieve unity and is basically sitting on an ejector seat.”

Renewal

Party spokeswoman Béatrice Wertli admits it was probably not a good idea to try to find a new leader without first looking at the reasons behind the party’s poor showing at the ballot box.

“This was actually proven to be wrong because of the reactions we had from the grass roots of the party and from possible candidates,” she told swissinfo.

“The party realised that we need to go through a process of renewal before electing a new president, because the party has lost in every election since 1979.”

That process of renewal will involve consulting grass-roots supporters on which direction the party should take, and the parliamentary group presenting a united front.

Full-time job

A new party president should be elected in September and, regardless of the Christian Democrats’ internal troubles, he or she will have a tough task ahead of them.

According to Blaser, the job of any party president has become more important over the past decade.

He says Swiss politics has become more “professional”, with the position of party president demanding a much more visible and vocal performance than in the past.

“This has entailed a lot more work for the person holding the position,” he said.

“They need to have a strong media presence and be involved in administrative work, as well as defining policy and participating in consultation procedures. The job has more or less become a full-time one.”

Free fall

Whoever the Christian Democrats finally elect will be taking over at time when many political analysts think the party is in free fall.

Wertli admits the position is not one for the faint-hearted, but she is convinced the party can reposition itself.

“A crisis is always a chance [to put things right], but it will be a challenge,” she said.

“It’s not an easy one, of course, but we have good people and they believe in the future of our party.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Christian Democrats

The former party president, Philipp Stähelin, stepped down in December last year.

In October’s parliamentary elections the Christian Democrats won just 14.4 per cent of the popular vote.

In 1987 support for the Christian Democrats dipped below 20 per cent for the first time.

The roots of the Christian Democrats go back to the Catholic Conservative party, which started life as the main opposition to the new federal state created by the Radicals in 1848.

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