Social Democrats begin search for way out of crisis

A crisis in Switzerland's Social Democratic Party has erupted into the open, following a closed meeting of the party management at the weekend. The dispute is being presented as a clash of personalities, but analysts say the divisions go much deeper

This content was published on February 21, 2000 - 15:08

A crisis in Switzerland's Social Democratic Party has erupted into the open, following a closed meeting of the party management at the weekend. The dispute is being presented as a clash of personalities, but analysts say the divisions go much deeper.

At the weekend, the management issued an ultimatum to the party president, Ursula Koch, and her secretary-general, Jean-Francois Steiert, to start working as a team by next June. Unless they do, it threatened not to renominate one of them at a party conference in October.

The conflict has been simmering for some time, but has died down over the past few months following the party's surprisingly strong showing in last October's general elections. It managed to maintain its share of the vote, even though Koch was already under attack as president at the time.

The Social Democrats have for a long time been the first or second strongest party in parliament, and have two of the seven cabinet seats.

Swiss Radio International's political correspondent, Peter Haller, says it is hard to find a concrete reason for the squabbling against Koch who is also a member of the House of Representatives.

"Her forthright, outgoing style, which hardly ever gets personal, is not to the taste of many of the old-style ideological Social Democrats who are to be found throughout the party organisation," he said.

Haller adds that the Social Democrats have had no difficulty in accommodating maverick politicians, such as Helmut Hubacher or the past president, Peter Bodenmann.

The conflict between the party leadership and the management appears to go deeper than the issue of style or personality. Haller says it is in essence a reflection of the Social Democrats' identity problem

"Once the working man's party, the Swiss Social Democrats are today middle-class, and probably overly-intellectual. What working class voters there still are, now opt for the right-wing Swiss People's Party," he said.

The warning given to Koch and Steiert, however, does not appear to be part of a concrete party-political plan. It does buy time for the conflict to either blow over, or for a solution to be found.

To add to the party's difficulties, the party's vice-president, Pierre Aeby, has indicated he is considering stepping down, following his failure to be re-elected to the Senate at the last general election.

From staff and wire reports

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