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Political row sparks worries over future of consensus politics

Growing acrimony between the left and right in Switzerland is causing concerns that the era of political consensus is coming to an end.

This content was published on March 15, 2000 - 12:09

Growing acrimony between the left and right in Switzerland is causing concerns that the era of political consensus is coming to an end. In the latest row, the left-leaning Social Democrats have vowed to boycott all cross-party discussions over comments made by a leading right-wing parliamentarian.

The Social Democrat parliamentary group unanimously voted to boycott all cross-party discussions with the government, until the People's Party distances itself from comments made by one of its leading figures, Christoph Blocher.

The row has been brewing since Blocher, the party's most prominent figure, accused the Social Democrats of being closer to fascism than his own right-wing party. He said the support shown by the Social Democrats for moves in the European Union to politically isolate Austria, were evidence of a totalitarian tendency.

Blocher is unquestionably Switzerland's most outspoken politician, but his rhetoric has become more and more extreme since his People's Party shot from fourth to second place in last October's general election.

It has now reached the point, where many are starting to wonder whether Switzerland's long history of consensus politics is over.

Swiss political analyst, Julian Hottinger, believes there's a clear trend towards more confrontation in politics. But he says it's not yet clear whether this is confined to rhetoric, or whether there really are growing ideological differences between the parties.

"People are more sensitive to having clear ideas put forward, so it could be that politicians are just responding to this."

But Paul Felber, spokesman for the centre-right Christian Democratic party, is in no doubt that Swiss politics is splitting into left and right factions. He says consensus is declining, and the centre parties are being marginalised by left and right.

Felber thinks this situation is here to stay, and is threatening the so-called "magic formula", whereby power is divided by the four biggest parties.

"We must accept that the Swiss are moving to a more confrontational style of politics. Against this background, we have to re-examine the system, and possibly kick the left, or right, out of government."

The Christian Democrats have made known their disapproval of Blocher's style of politics by boycotting the main political debating programme on Swiss television, Arena.

Felber says this is because the programme is choosing to give air time to politicians who entertain, rather than practice serious politics.

"Arena is produced by a public service broadcaster, which has a duty to inform, not to entertain. Yet they choose their guests for their extreme views, and ignore serious politicians."

Julian Hottinger thinks this view is a little premature. He believes the appeal of politicians like Blocher will eventually wear off.

"It's too simple," he says. "The People's Party has managed to pull out some key issues, and make a lot of noise about them. But their proposals and their strategy doesn't work with the Swiss. If they continue, it could harm them in the longer term."

In fact, Hottinger believes Blocher's days of being taken seriously are numbered. "I think the other parties are starting to use his behaviour to isolate him within his own party. I think there's agreement among the upper echelons in all parties."

Hottinger may be right, but it's unlikely Blocher will go quietly. On his comments towards the Social Democrats, he has not only refused to apologise, but has repeated the allegations.

He said of the political stance of the Social Democrats, "The deification of the state, the emphasis upon the collective - that is the essence of Socialism."

by Jonas Hughes

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