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Political outlook moderate to stormy in 2009

Crossing point at the Swiss-German border: February's vote on the free movement of people is a crucial one

(Keystone)

An EU labour accord, the economic crisis, higher unemployment and a new People's Party member of the cabinet – it's a potentially stormy mix ahead for 2009.

The February 8 referendum on prolonging the agreement with the European Union on the free movement of people and extending it to Bulgaria and Romania is the key vote of the year, Lausanne University political scientist Georg Lutz told swissinfo.

A great deal would be on the line if the electorate rejected the deal, in his opinion, since the whole package of bilateral accords would have to be renegotiated.

For the Swiss People's Party which is mounting a strong "no" campaign, rejection would be a success, Lutz says. But it would come at a "high price" because within the party there is a strong pro-business wing, which is in favour of free movement.

This is an important issue for the party because it has always tried to position itself as pro-business. "If the "no" vote wins, relations between the People's Party and business associations will take a battering," Lutz commented.

Downfall?

Some opponents of the People's Party go as far as to forecast its demise if the result is "Yes". But Lutz plays this down. "People have been predicting the downfall of the party for the past 15 years but it has managed to increase its vote at every election," he observes.

However, the rightwing party, which received 29 per cent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, is reaching its limit, Lutz points out. "There is not an infinite number of potential national conservative voters."

When parliament voted for Ueli Maurer to succeed outgoing minister Samuel Schmid on December 10, it chose one of the two official candidates put forward by the party. But despite having a reputation as something of a hardliner, Maurer has been making conciliatory noises since his election. He has said he will take collective responsibility for cabinet decisions, even those his party opposes.

Lutz thinks it is premature to speak of a split with Maurer's own party. It is true that some of Maurer's fellow party members have expressed unease at the way he already sounds more like a statesman and member of government and less like a figurehead for People's Party opposition politics, but "it remains to be seen how the party will deal with that."

There is speculation that 2009 could see more departures from the seven-member cabinet. "To predict that you would be better to go to an astrologist," says Lutz, pointing out that in the past the government has not let itself be influenced by such rumours.

Collective responsibility

The principle of collective responsibility is enshrined in law. The seven members of the government are obliged to take decisions collectively and ...

Crisis of trust

Whether the state will have to administer another cash injection to UBS – or give one to Credit Suisse - no one can predict. Whatever happens, Lutz is certain that the government could not allow the country's two largest banks to fail, considering the huge importance they have for the Swiss economy.

"It is possible that we might see another rescue package, depending on the circumstances," Lutz said, adding that this would do nothing for people's confidence in the banks, which has already been badly shaken.

"The banks, which always presented themselves as economic paragons, revealed profound weaknesses in 2008, not only in the way they reacted to the economic situation but also in their approach to risk."

Xenophobia

The economic forecast for 2009 is less than rosy for Switzerland, with unemployment predicted to reach almost three per cent. Lutz believes the country now has to wait and see how bad the recession is and how long it will last.

"Some people react to economic crises with hostility to foreigners," he warns, but is unwilling to predict whether the People's Party will be able to take advantage of the fact.

"In times of crisis traditionally there is also a demand for left-leaning policies, such as a strong social state and more regulation. But so far the [centre-left] Social Democrats have not managed to take advantage of that in terms of electoral support," he says.

Lutz is not sure to what extent the financial crisis will have an impact on the upcoming popular votes, especially those covering what he describes as "rather symbolic issues" like the initiative to ban the building of minarets in Switzerland. In this case it all depends on whether the People's Party regards the issue as one for a strategic campaign, he says.

Climate and environment

Climate and the environment are likely to take a back seat in the ongoing economic crisis. Even when things are going well, there is already a marked difference between the lofty goals set and the action taken on the ground, according to Lutz.

"In times of crisis measures which have cost implications or could put a brake on economic growth are even harde to push through than usual," he says. And that could be handy. "It will be possible to back down from these goals without having to pay too much of a political price."

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Jean-Michel Berthoud

Georg Lutz

Georg Lutz holds a doctorate in political science, researches and teaches on political institutions and political behaviour in comparative perspectives as well as Swiss politics.

Lutz is currently project leader of the Swiss electoral study Selects, which is affiliated to the Swiss Foundation for Research in Social Sciencesat Lausanne University.

Lutz regularly works as a consultant for organisations such as the World Bank and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation or the Swiss Foreign Ministry.

end of infobox

Vote on February 8, 2009.

The Swiss people are to vote on whether to prolong the agreement which allows EU and Swiss citizens to live and work in each other's countries, and whether to extend it to new EU members Romania and Bulgaria.

The government believes that this agreement, along with others made at the same time, has been positive for Switzerland over the past six years.

The government and parliament want to prolong the so-called "free movement" treaty indefinitely, and to extend it to the latest EU members.

They are supported by the Swiss Business Federation and by trades unions.

The People's Party originally opposed holding a referendum on the treaty, but its youth chapter collected enough signatures to force a vote, and the parent party then swung round in support.

end of infobox


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