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Parliamentarian still finds inspiration at 78

Neirynck listening to the simultaneous translation is the oldest parliamentarian

Neirynck listening to the simultaneous translation is the oldest parliamentarian

(Keystone)

He stands out among the 246 parliamentarians in more than one way – Jacques Neirynck who sits in the House of Representatives, musing about the driving forces of politics.

No list of all his qualifications and qualities does justice to the 78-year-old Neirynck: electrical engineeer, professor, researcher, author, journalist and activist for consumer rights, who was born in Belgium, lived in Africa and obtained Swiss citizenship less than 15 years ago.

Not only is he the oldest parliamentarian and a grandfatherly figure but is also considered above all an intellectual personality.

“There is no way denying it with my academic career and my publications,” says Neirynck.

“I personify what this parliament detests most. Many people are irritated because I refuse to follow a strict ideology.”

He admits that it is not easy for his fellow parlaimentarians to have somebody like him among their ranks.

“I’m a man of the centre. Neither the left nor right can count on my support; I tackle an issue with an open mind to help seek the best possible solution.”

Talking about his reputation in parliament Neirynck displays a certain intellectual distance from and harshness with many of his colleagues.

“Most speeches in parliament are extremly poor. At the beginning I took pleasure in pointing out logical errors, but I have given up this childish pursuit,” says Neirynck and appears to gaze at a point in the distance through his rather large glasses.

Coincidence

“My career as a parliamentarian and member of the [centre right] Christian Democratic Party is sheer coincidence,” he says with baffling frankness.

A few years after his retirement as professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Neirynck met a journalist and parliamentarian who was looking for a successor.

“I would not be in Swiss politics had I not come across Jean-Charles Simon in the corridors of the studios of public radio in Lausanne.”

Neirynck who has always been interested in politics, has championed consumer rights for decades similar to Ralph Nader in the United States.

“Reasonable record”

He appears to be at peace with himself when he looks at his achievements in the first half of the present parliamentary term.

He launched a successful attempt to improve the legal status of foreign university graduates in Switzerland and has made science and research as well ecology his main issues.

“It is a reasonable record,” he says.

Other proposals, including an initiative to ban mineral water in plastic bottles for environmental reasons, fell on deaf ears or earned him scorn and derision.

He brushes away his defeat. “I wanted to make a point. I did it. Period.”

Stage

Neirynck is also one of the few parliamentarians who gave a comeback on the political stage in Bern. He failed to win re-election in 2003 after a first term, but was unexpectedly returned four years later.

By virtue of his age he represents the older generation, he says. Neirynck – a Jacques of many trades, to make the obvious pun, has no immediate plans to stop.

“Maybe because I’ve had such an fascinating life I’m keen to keep all my interests alive.”

He says it is in his family to pursue different interests, just like one of his grandfathers, a pastry cook who was not only excellent at his job but built furniture, steel frames and repaired boots.

“But I’m aware I’m getting older. It will be time for me to go once I can’t do the things anymore I want to do.”

Inspiration

Parliament serves him as a plentiful source of inspiration for his novels and plays, he says.

“It is the perfect place to study mankind’s comic tragedy,” says the admirer of William Shakespeare, as well as of the French classic authors Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille.

He refers to the great Greek playright Sophocles when discussing the shock result of the recent nationwide vote on a minaret ban: A topic for a tragedy on stage with comical aspects and a potentially disastrous ending, he says.

Neirynck says great authors make the reader realise that the biggest tragedies are always about politics, no matter where or when.

“I’d like to understand what the true motivation and the driving force in politics are.”

Then Neirynck gets up from the sofa outside the parliament lobby where we met for the interview. A polite “merci” in French and he walks back to his seat in the chamber and puts on the headphones to listen to simultaneous translations of the German speakers.

Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch

Key Facts

Neirynck is one of 31 Christian Democrats in the House of Representatives.

His party has a total of 46 seats in the 246-strong parliament – making it the fourth biggest political group.

The Christian Democrats, traditionally centre-right with strongholds in Catholic regions, are represented in the seven-member cabinet by Economics Minister Doris Leuthard.

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Neirynck and the Swiss abroad

Neirynck is favour of granting the Swiss abroad seats in both parliamentary chambers according to the size of their community.

He says Switzerland should follow the example of other European countries.

The estimated 680,000 expatriates make up 10% of the Swiss population. About 120,000 expatriates have registered to vote.

Neirynck also calls for increased efforts to introduce e-voting: “I can’t see why it should be so difficult to set up a secure system if we pay our bills and do our banking over the internet.”

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