Economist takes politicians to task

Wittmann says the Swiss treat their political system like a religion Keystone

Swiss economist Walter Wittmann says that hollow words from Swiss politicians usually have only one aim – that of killing any desire to reform.

This content was published on September 12, 2006 - 08:10

Wittmann, who has been studying the language of politicians in his latest book, tells swissinfo that Switzerland is a closed society and is only liberal and free to those who have power.

The emeritus professor has hardly had a chance to take advantage of retirement at his home in Bad Ragaz in eastern Switzerland.

He has been writing almost one book a year for several years and his next is due out in February.

"It's really important that I keep myself busy in winter," the tireless destroyer of old ideas explains.

swissinfo: Where did you get the idea to dissect the hollow phrases that one sometimes hears from Swiss politicians?

Walter Wittmann: The trigger went off when I heard [Swiss Finance Minister] Hans-Rudolf Merz say: "We moan for no reason".

I reply that 40 per cent of people in Switzerland do not have enough money to pay for their health insurance. Many things are said without being called into question. But you can't say the same old thing for 100 years without asking whether it's still valid!

swissinfo: You criticise the opposition to change and the weak [economic] growth of the country. But Switzerland is recording a period of growth...

W.W.: It's obviously not the right time to talk about weakness. We are indeed seeing an economic recovery, but this is not a new trend. All the indicators say this recovery will reach its peak this year.

But the current improvement means there is a risk of denial again. Even the most analytic minds do not want to see the weakness of the system. They have blinkers on when it comes to Switzerland.

swissinfo: Why?

W.W.: It's like a religion. Some people believe in Switzerland and its political system, which they think is the best in the world. And when you believe in something, you don't ask too many questions. And those who do want to ask questions are heretics. I'm a heretic. It's also the reason why no reforms are pushed.

swissinfo: But everything takes a lot of time in Switzerland...

W.W.: Yes, "more slowly than elsewhere" is another catchphrase. We should nevertheless ask if a system that does not allow any reforms is a good system. No one takes this step. People wait until emergency measures have to be taken.

swissinfo: You plead for the reintroduction of a majority system [in politics].

W.W.: Yes, as was the case before 1919. This would allow the formation of majorities that would adopt a coalition programme. A coalition government, by the way, would be possible without a change of the [Swiss] constitution.

And then – I know this will provoke a general outcry – the coalition would have to try to make at least 300 legislative amendments in one go, to avoid the risk of referendums, because it would be impossible to collect enough signatures against all the changes.

swissinfo: You also criticise the lack of [good] replacements to take over jobs with high responsibility in the economy. Do you feel this is the same in politics?

W.W.: Absolutely. At present I don't see any strong personality capable of bringing about a change. Switzerland does have potential, but the system of personal relations – i.e. who you know – still prevents competent people from climbing the [career] ladder unless they have the right address book. That's what you call a closed society. People say Switzerland is a liberal and free society – free for whom? For those who have the power...

swissinfo: But if the system continues to work one way or another, isn't that enough?

W.W.: We haven't reached the end phase. It's going to continue to go badly for some time. Since the 1970s the country has been gradually losing some of the substance that once made it great. Between 1946 and 1973 the Swiss economy harvested enormous riches. Just after the Second World War other countries were not in a position to export. We took advantage of the strong demand.

But it was "old industries" like traditional engineering and textiles that reaped the benefit. During this time other countries developed new technologies and that's why the crisis was so brutal in the 1970s.

swissinfo: You hear sometimes that when the pressure is big enough, changes will happen.

W.W.: Allow me not to believe that. When you're facing a real crisis, for example in the economy, people say they cannot permit reforms. And when things improve, people pat themselves on the back – "you see, we're on the right track, there is no reason for reforms".

For me, Switzerland is like a Formula 1 driver in a 1950s car filled with bad petrol who wants to compete against Michael Schumacher.

swissinfo-interview: Ariane Gigon Bormann

In brief

Walter Wittmann's new book is called "Swiss catchphrases – political, striking, empty".

In it he describes Swiss catchphrases that, he argues, prevent any reforms in Switzerland.

Phrases such as "Switzerland is a country of innovation", "direct democracy is the best political system" and "pragmatism is the best way" are examples in the book.

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Walter Wittmann

Born in 1935, Walter Wittmann was a professor of public finances at Fribourg University between 1965 and 1998.

He has written numerous research papers and published about 15 books, including "The Swiss Myths" and "Between market and the state – the precipitous path to the European Union".

Wittmann is a convinced pro-European, a supporter of the market economy but not the free market economy – "which allows cartels" – and he is a staunch opponent of direct democracy at the federal level.

"The referendum and the double majority [of people and cantons] are instruments that block," he argues. He is a member of the centre-right Radical Party, which he says he will not leave, despite disappointments.

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