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Farmers seek friends in parliament

A livestock auction - the farming community's influence outweighs its relative size (RDB)

Parliament is this week set to tackle controversial plans by the government to liberalise Switzerland's agricultural sector by 2011.

Farmers' organisations, which would like to slow down the pace of reform, have friends among the politicians but aren't so sure which parties are going to defend their interests.

For years, Swiss farmers were heavily subsidised and protected from market forces. But more recently, they've had to deal with more and more competition from abroad, leading to the disappearance of many farms and shrinking revenue.

Tuesday's debate comes less than two weeks after the leading think tank Avenir Suisse called for radical shake-up of the Swiss farming sector in a bid to bring down prices for agricultural products.

The think tank said that trade barriers and financial measures by the state to support the country's farmers – including duties and tariffs as well as direct subsidies should be dropped within 15 years. It also called for farmers to develop more entrepreneurial initiative.

The government most certainly wants to make the farming sector more competitive. Its 2011 agricultural policy calls for fewer export subsidies and to transform current subsidies into so-called direct payments.

Spending on agriculture should also be cut by SFr593 million ($494 million) to SFr13.5 billion. The Swiss Farmers Association appealed to parliament in November to slow down the pace of the planned reforms.

Slower pace

The farmers can hope to find some sympathy from the politicians. In the House of Representatives, the agricultural sector is well represented, making up 12 per cent of the numbers.

But as farmers and their families represent only 3.8 per cent of the population, there are questions as to whether they have too much influence in parliament.

For the centre-right Radical John Dupraz and vice-president of the farmers association, it is not an even an issue. "Asking the question suggests voters don't know what they are doing," he said.

Another farmer, the rightwing People's Party representative Guy Parmelin, is not so sure. "You could say we are overrepresented," he admits.

"But if voters choose so many farmers, it must be because they do more than represent agricultural interests."

Roots

Most of these farmers are members of centre-right or rightwing parties, and only two represent the centre-left Social Democrats and the Greens.

For Dupraz, this is hardly surprising while Parmelin points out that farmers are usually entrepreneurs.

About half the farmers in parliament are members of the People's Party, a fact that according to Parmelin is rooted in history. "In a number of cantons, the People's Party represented farmers and independent businessmen."

Critics argue their rightwing opponent no longer defends the agricultural lobby, and that its behaviour in parliament is counterproductive.

"The People's Party wants to cut down on government spending and social benefits, but it keeps on demanding more money for agriculture," said Mathias Manz, political secretary of the Social Democrats. "Farmers can see that this kind of policy will hurt them in the long term."

But for Parmelin, there is no contradiction. "Agriculture must face specific conditions: you can't move it offshore," he added.

Alliance

For its part, the Social Democratic Party points out have it has made its presence felt by defending biological production methods and helping farmers get ready for a more liberalised market.

The agricultural world and the Left have worked together in the past as well.

Their alliance convinced Swiss voters to accept a ban on the use of genetically-modified products by farmers for five years.

For Manz, such coalitions will spring up more and more often, a possibility Parmelin admits is more than likely. "Farmers have understood that today you can't just produce something, but that you have to sell it."

swissinfo, Olivier Pauchard

Key facts

3.8% of the Swiss population worked in the agricultural sector in 2004.
Farming production represented 1.3% of Gross Domestic Product.
There were 64,466 farms, 34,293 fewer than in 1985.
There are 22 farmers and 4 agricultural engineers in the 200-strong House of Representatives, or 12% of the total number.
In the other parliamentary chamber - the Senate - there are two agricultural engineers.

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