Parliament re-elects cabinet ministers

Switzerland’s seven cabinet ministers are being re-elected by parliament on Wednesday. Unusually, both they and the system of government are facing a challenge.

This content was published on December 15, 1999 minutes

Switzerland’s seven cabinet ministers are being re-elected by parliament on Wednesday. Unusually, both they and the system of government are facing a challenge.

A number of parliamentarians, speaking ahead of the vote, warned against "playing games" with the traditional format of power-sharing.

Under the “magic formula,” which was agreed in 1959, the seven cabinet posts were divided among four parties, a move which helped ensure four decades of political stability. The centre-left Social Democrats, and the centre-right Radicals and Christian Democrats each held two seats in cabinet, with the right-wing Swiss People’s Party allocated one.

The traditional division of cabinet seats was thrown into doubt following the results of the October 24 parliamentary election, which saw the fourth largest party, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, make considerable gains and become the second largest party in the House of Representatives.

Its populist leader Christoph Blocher is standing for a second seat on behalf of the People’s Party in the cabinet election. Blocher aims to oust the Interior Minister, Ruth Dreifuss, one of two Social Democrats in government. If he is successful, this would force the Social Democrats into opposition and break up the “magic formula.”

Despite Dreifuss’s unpopularity with centre-right politicians because of her welfare spending programmes and proposals, most analysts agree Blocher is unlikely to muster sufficient votes. “Parliament would rather vote for a Communist than for him,” wrote the daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Many different political scenarios are envisaged. According to one, the Social Democrats, Radicals and Christian Democrats could gang up against the People’s Party’s current sole representative in cabinet, the Defence Minister Adolf Ogi, and force him out, pushing the People’s Party into opposition.

Swiss newspapers speculated on Tuesday that the Radical Party President Franz Steinegger would stand against Ogi on Wednesday.

But the cabinet re-election could also witness no changes at all, analysts say.

Some cabinet members, like Dreifuss, may only scrape a narrow majority, as was the case at the last election session in 1995. This effectively serves as a reminder to cabinet members by parliamentarians that they or their policies are none too popular.

During a visit to parliament on Tuesday, Blocher appeared to concede that his chances of ousting Dreifuss and torpedoing the “magic formula“ were slim.

Some members of parliament from the French-speaking part of Switzerland have also made it clear that they will not support a move to oust Dreifuss, who represents Geneva, if her seat is to be taken by a Swiss-German.

A setback on Wednesday, however, could also suit Blocher’s purposes, analysts say. Being denied what it believes is its right to a second cabinet seat is a potential vote winner for the People’s Party when the next parliamentary elections take place in 2003.

A key decision by the parliamentary group of the Christian Democrats last week also appeared to negate any major changes: The party, now the fourth largest in the House of Representatives, voted to maintain the current allocation of cabinet seats.

Considerable last minute plotting and haggling is expected in the hotels and restaurants of Berne, close to the parliament buildings, ahead of Wednesday’s joint session of the 200-member House of Representatives and 46-member Senate.

It is not ruled out that surprise candidates will be brought into the race at the last minute to mount either a serious challenge to current cabinet ministers or to test their popularity.

From staff and wire reports

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