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Greens mark time on the benches

After 20 years, Switzerland's Greens are no closer to breaking into government

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland's Greens are celebrating their 20th anniversary as a national party this year.

Although they make up the fifth largest group in parliament - behind the four parties in government - they are likely to remain in opposition.

Switzerland was the first country in the world to elect a Green Party member to its national parliament - Daniel Brélaz in 1979, almost four years before the party was founded at a national level.

But the Swiss Green Party has never reached the same level of success nationally as its counterparts in other European countries.

In Germany, the Greens are the junior partner in government and one of their members - Joschka Fischer - is the country's foreign minister. In Belgium, they were part of the ruling coalition until the May 18 elections.

In Switzerland, the Greens have had to content themselves with a share of power in some regional governments.

Political researcher Emanuel von Erlach says they face a future in opposition because of the strength of the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party.

He says the Social Democrats learned from their mistakes of the late 1980s. "The Social Democrats realised just in time what was happening and started putting environmental questions on their agenda to attract back some of their lost support," he said.

No hope

Von Erlach says another reason the Green Party has virtually no hope of getting into government is because of the Switzerland's political structure.

"The country has had the same composition of its government for over 40 years," he told swissinfo.

"It's made up of the four strongest parties which between them have around three quarters of the seats in parliament.

"Because parliament elects the government, it's very difficult for a new party to break into the cabinet and we have never even come close to having a leftwing majority in parliament.

Since 1959 the Swiss government has been shaped by the principle of the "Magic Formula", which shares out the seven cabinet seats among the four main parties.

Internal squabbling

The highpoint for the Greens at a national level was in the 1991 election when 14 members were returned to parliament.

But the party could not hold on to the gains and in the 1995 election it lost four seats.

The rest of the 1990s was characterised by internal struggle between the left and right wings of the party.

But Hans Beat Schaffner, co-founder of the party, insists other factors played a part in slowing down the momentum of the Greens at a national level.

"Times change and other issues become more important," he told swissinfo. "Chernobyl slipped to the back of people's minds and the economic problems became more of a priority for the electorate."

One issue party

Although the party has its roots in environmental issues, von Erlach maintains that it is far from being a one-issue party.

"Although it started out as a single-issue party, within the past ten years especially it has become a party with quite clear standpoints on other issues," he said.

Those issues, he says, include "favourites of the Left" such as globalisation, social policy, drugs, migration and energy.

The move is also a clear reflection of the maturity of the party and its struggle to define itself politically.

In its early days it comprised many different factions from across the political spectrum, united in their campaign to protect the environment.

But over time, for many, it has clearly defined itself as a party to the Left of the Social Democrats.

But Schaffner is unwilling to accept the label, and insists that the party has always been and will remain a "broad church". "In the beginning we appealed to ecologists from both the Left and the Right.

"Although people would like to portray us as being to the Left of the Social Democrats, I still think we should also appeal to voters more to the Right of the Social Democrats.

Symbolic role

Von Erlach feels that even without any chance of a role in government, the Greens still have a very important symbolic role at a national level.

Bern, Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and Lucerne all have representative from the Greens in the city governments, as do cantonal governments of Zurich, Schaffhausen, Vaud and Geneva.

"That is where the Greens can play their biggest role," said von Erlach. "In the cities they can appeal to an electorate which has a larger leftwing vote."

Schaffner agrees that much of the strength of the Green Party lies in the grass roots support it has at a local level - something, he says, that perfectly mirrors Switzerland's federal system.

"The basis of our party is in the cantons and the cities. At that level the party can address issues that really matter to the local people, and it gives us a launching pas for renewed success in the future at a national level."

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Swiss Greens

December 1971: founding of the first cantonal Green Party in Neuchâtel.
October 1979: Daniel Brélaz becomes the first Green to win a seat in any national parliament worldwide.
May 28, 1983: Founding of the Swiss Green Party at a national level.
October 1987: The party wins nine seats in the Swiss national parliamentary elections.
October 1991: The party wins 14 seats in the Swiss national parliamentary elections.

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