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Radicals lag behind in the opinion polls

Unemployment, the economy and reform of Switzerland’s welfare system are the priorities for the Radical Party in its election campaign.

This content was published on September 12, 2003 - 14:53

But the centre-right party is lagging in the opinion polls and has an image problem with the electorate.

Political analyst, Andreas Ladner, says the Radicals have had difficulty recovering from a bad start at the beginning of the year. They were forced to elect a new president, after the previous party boss became embroiled in a scandal involving the insurer, Swiss Life.

“It was a very bad moment for the Radicals,” he told swissinfo.

“The party should have been preparing to start its election campaign but instead it was choosing a new president and had problems with some of its leaders involved in bad business practice.”

Gerold Bührer – a board member of Swiss Life - resigned at the end of last year after only 18 months as party president, following revelations that the insurer had set up a secretive investment vehicle that made millions for top executives.

Bührer, who was not among them, made way for the current party president, Christiane Langenberger, who was elected leader in January.

Europe debate

After just nine months on the job, Langenberger recently reignited the debate over possible Swiss membership of the European Union (EU), saying that although it was clearly too early to contemplate Switzerland joining, there should be an “open discussion” about ties with the EU.

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party leaped on Langenberger’s comments, demanding the other parties in government make their positions on the subject clear, and claiming the question of whether Switzerland should join the EU was the most important issue in October's election.

The most recent opinion polls suggests otherwise, with EU relations slipping out of the top five major concerns for the electorate.

Guido Schommer, secretary-general of the Radicals, rejects claims that Langenberger was calling for a debate on EU membership and says his party’s position is clear.

“It is normal to have the issue of our relations with the EU as part of the election campaign,” he told swissinfo.

“We know the electorate does not want to join and we have to respect that,” he added.

“We know full well that the question of full integration [with the EU] will not be an issue over the next four years, instead we have chosen to pursue a series of bilateral agreements.”

Image problem

Both centre-right parties in government - the Radicals and the Christian Democrats – have lost ground in the opinion polls to the other two government partners - the People’s Party and the centre-left Social Democrats.

“It’s always going to be a problem for parties that find themselves addressing the political centre,” Ladner said.

“Both the Radicals and the Christian Democrats have to get their point across to voters and show what they stand for.”

Schommer rejects criticism that his party is suffering from an image problem and maintains the Radicals have two main messages in their election campaign.

“Our first priority is to create new jobs and the right conditions for economic growth,” he said.

“We also want to secure the future of the social welfare system without resorting to raising taxes.”

Pension reforms

One issue featuring high on the list of concerns among voters is pensions.

Earlier this year one of the Radicals' two government members, Pascal Couchepin, unveiled his blueprint for reforming the state pension scheme.

The interior minister suggested raising the retirement age and a hike in the level of Value Added Tax as part of the solution to keeping spending on pensions in check.

The proposals provoked fury from both the trade unions and the Left, but Ladner doubts whether Couchepin’s plans will have repercussions for the Radicals at the ballot box.

“Some voters might have problems [with the proposals] but I don’t think what he did will harm the party,” he said.

“Couchepin was putting forward his ideas and not the solution,” he added.

“He is daring to talk about the problem and wants to find a way of solving it.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

The latest opinion poll gives the Radical Party a 20% share of the vote, behind the People’s Party (26%) and the Social Democrats (22%).
The Radicals have 42 members in the House of Representatives, out of a total of 200 seats, and 18 out of 46 in the Senate.
In the last election in 1999 the party gained 19.9% of the vote.
The party has two representatives in the government, Pascal Couchepin – the interior minister and this year’s president – and Kaspar Villiger, the finance minister.

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