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Party politics and bailout package shaped 2008

(Keystone)

Switzerland's political life in the past year was largely marked by apparent tensions within one of its leading parties and the worsening global economic crisis.

Voters had the final say on a series of policy issues, but they confirmed their conservative reputation by throwing out most of the proposals, including tougher citizenship rules and pension and health insurance reforms.

The year 2008 in politics was already drawing to a close when parliament approved a financial rescue plan - including a loan of $54 billion (SFr59 billion) and a SFr6 billion cash injection by the government and the Swiss National Bank for the leading UBS bank.

The agreement was in fact merely the confirmation of a decision by cabinet in October and came after drawn-out debates during the three-week winter session.

The centre-left tried unsuccessfully to put conditions on the bailout plan, including caps on manager salaries and the reimbursement of excessive bonuses.

Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz defended the government's strategy, but acknowledged that a review of procedures was needed to ensure that democratic principles are respected.

"It was only possible to act without consulting parliament because of the UBS exposure on the stock markets," Merz said.

He stressed that the bank had agreed to improve corporate governance rules while the banking regulator would tighten controls.

Opposition

The past year will also go down as exceptional in terms of the political system of the country, although in the end the impact was limited, demonstrating the stability of Switzerland's government.

The People's Party - the largest of the four main parties – went into self-imposed opposition at the beginning of the year, excluding its two cabinet ministers following parliament's refusal to re-elect the controversial justice minister and leading light of the party, Christoph Blocher.

For the first time in 50 years the cabinet make-up did not reflect the strengths of the political groups in parliament.

But the People's Party failed to capitalise on its role in opposition and became bogged down in internal conflicts and confusing policy changes.

"The unity of the party was put to a difficult test. Internal divisions became publicly visible," said political scientist Oscar Mazzoleni, who teaches at the universities of Geneva and Lausanne.

Mazzoleni added that December's election of former People's Party President Ueli Maurer to the cabinet could help defuse tensions in 2009.

"It is a long-standing traditional element of the Swiss system to integrate and partially neutralise the opposition by including them in government," he commented.

Maurer, Schmid

Mounting pressure by the People's Party on Defence Minister Samuel Schmid, following the controversial appointment of a new army chief commander, precipitated his resignation.

This leaves Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf as the only minister in the seven-member cabinet not representing one of the four main parties. A former member of the People's Party, she has been one of the shooting stars on the political firmament this year.

Not only did Widmer-Schlumpf defy People's Party rules, earning her exclusion from the fold, she also had to step in for Finance Minister Merz after he suffered a heart attack and spent several weeks in recovery.

Merz will take over the largely ceremonial post of Swiss president in 2009, succeeding Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin.

Consensus politics and power-sharing

The term "consensus politics" describes the ongoing effort to achieve a balanced compromise among political parties and among the different ...

Votes

Swiss voters were called to the polls three times over the past 12 months to decide on issues including drugs, health premiums, old age pensions, air force fighter jets, tax breaks and citizenship.

But neither a proposal by the People's Party to reinstate the use of the ballot box to decide on naturalisations, nor a plan to lower the retirement age, nor the decriminalisation of cannabis won a majority.

Only one people's initiative was approved at the ballot box, against the recommendations of the government and parliament. It is aimed at tightening legal provisions against paedophile criminals.

Voters endorsed official decisions, including the distribution of heroin to addicts under medical supervision, and tax breaks for small and medium-sized companies.

It was the right and the centre-left respectively which had unsuccessfully sought to overturn parliamentary agreements.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser and Olivier Pauchard

In brief

The cabinet held more than 50 sessions in 2008, at least 12 up on the previous year.

It met for a total of nearly 100 hours and decided on more than 2,000 issues.

Parliament convened for its four regular three-week sessions and held special meetings to discuss a financial rescue package for the UBS bank and to debate a labour treaty with the European Union.

Voters had the final say on a total of ten issues in three votes in February, June and November respectively.

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Strike

More than 400 employees at the cargo unit of the Swiss Federal Railways in Bellinzona staged a four-week strike over planned job cuts.

It was one of the biggest labour protests in decades and the first one affecting the Federal Railways in more than 100 years.

The strike, which began on March 7, mobilised thousands of people in the southern Ticino region.

The protesters decided to end industrial action in April after management withdrew its initial restructuring plans for the loss-making unit.

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