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Pressure on Swiss cabinet intensifies

(Reuters)

Increasing pressures on the Swiss government have once again raised questions about how the seven-member body might be eased of some of the strain.

It has been a turbulent week, with Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz recovering from a heart attack and Defence Minister Samuel Schmid under fire.

Political scientist Hans Hirter tells swissinfo that cabinet members face ever increasing attacks on their person, rather than being judged solely on their policies.

He also considers how recent events may affect changes in the government, but notes that for the time being everything is open.

swissinfo: This week the armament programme of Defence Minister Samuel Schmid was rejected, with the active support of the rightwing Swiss People's Party, which was primarily voting against Schmid. Has anything like that happened before in Swiss politics?

Hans Hirter: The parties don't always support their own cabinet ministers but to my knowledge it's never happened before that a party went so far as to torpedo a whole package. By the way, Schmid has not been a People's Party member for almost a year.

Besides, the People's Party is not only against Schmid but also the current military policy that was approved by Swiss voters and parliament. It would like a return to the old army that existed in the 1950s and 60s.

swissinfo: Schmid is not the only government member who has been subjected to personal attacks. Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf received death threats when she was elected. Is some kind of degeneration entering Swiss politics?

H.H.: It's not totally new. Government ministers are under public scrutiny and have always been criticised. But the criticism now is clearly more vicious and virulent and there are two reasons for that.

The People's Party worked towards the personalisation of politics with their former minister, Christoph Blocher, for example running a campaign in the House of Representatives to try to return him to the cabinet. The second reason is that the media – and not just the tabloids – are concentrating more on personalities than on politics.

swissinfo: Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz has recently been under a lot of pressure because of the international financial crisis. Last week he suffered a heart attack and his heart stopped for a time. Is the pressure on cabinet ministers increasing?

H.H.: In theory, yes, but less on account of the business that has to be done at home in Switzerland. In the last 15 years government business has become more and more international.

Merz had to attend a large number of international meetings in the last few weeks. And when the European Union holds consultations, Switzerland is often present too. This travelling outside Switzerland comes on top of normal government business and it can easily lead to too much strain.

swissinfo: How can be some of the pressure be taken off the government?

There have been discussions for many years in Switzerland on how some of the load could be lifted off the government. But so far they have come to nothing. We still have seven cabinet members – as was the case in 1848 – not around 20 as in other countries.

The idea was to increase the number in the cabinet to at least nine or 11. It was even discussed in parliament but it didn't get through.

swissinfo: What were the reasons for that?

H.H.: Switzerland has a collegial system without a head. If this group were to become too large, the cooperation among people with the same rights would be more complicated. Another idea would be to name state secretaries and ministers, apart from those in the cabinet, who would have no authority to make decisions.

They could represent Switzerland at international conferences or in parliament but would not belong in the inner circle where decisions are taken. That would certainly ease the burden for cabinet ministers. But this proposition was also turned down in a national vote in 1996.

swissinfo: Has Widmer-Schlumpf, who belongs to the new Conservative Democratic Party, a chance of being re-elected?

H.H.: She must at the earliest stand again in the autumn of 2011 because her term of office lasts until then. It doesn't look as though anyone wants to force her out of the cabinet. Re-election, though, is rather uncertain so long as she remains in this small party.

The large parties are not prepared to give up a seat for such a small entity. She could either join forces with a larger party such as the Radicals or Christian Democrats, or she could take advantage of a situation in which she puts in such a good performance that the other parties wouldn't be able to put forward a stronger candidate. She could be elected once again in a kind of coalition of reason.

swissinfo: Widmer-Schlumpf was elected to the cabinet instead of Blocher. Will the People's Party return to the cabinet and if so, with or without Blocher?

H.H.: The party will return to the cabinet. At least it should in the view of the Christian Democrats and Radicals, so that it is not in opposition in the centre-right camp.

But if the People's Party puts forward Blocher, it will not return because Blocher clearly failed to gain a majority in last December's cabinet elections, to the benefit of Widmer-Schlumpf. However, if the party is prepared to accept another candidate it has a good chance of returning to the cabinet.

swissinfo-interview: Susanne Schanda

The Swiss government

Unlike most other states, Switzerland does not have a prime minister, or a permanent president.

The government or cabinet has consisted of seven members since 1848. One of them takes on the largely ceremonial role of president for a year on a rotating basis.

With the election of two Social Democrats in 1959, the cabinet had a party composition that lasted for more than 40 years.

The cabinet during that period was composed of two members of the Radical Party, two from the Christian Democratic Party, two Social Democrats and one from the Swiss People's Party. This represented the voter strength of the parties for years. The so-called "magic formula" was born.

This came to an end in the elections of 2003 when the People's Party gained a second seat at the expense of the Christian Democrats

When Christoph Blocher was not re-elected in 2007, parliamentarians chose his People's Party colleague Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf. The party later decided it would go in opposition, disowning the parliamentarians' choice.

Earlier this year, Schmid and Widmer-Schlumpf left the party and joined dissident People's Party members in the new Conservative Democratic Party.

Since then, the People's Party has had no representative in the cabinet.

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