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Social Democrats look to broaden support

Hans-Jürg Fehr spills the beans to swissinfo

This year will be a decisive one for Switzerland’s Social Democrats, according to the party’s newly elected president, Hans-Jürg Fehr.

He told swissinfo that the party aimed to become the country’s main political force at the next parliamentary elections in 2007.

Fehr, who has almost 30 years of service at all levels within the centre-left Social Democrats, was chosen as the party’s new president just a week ago.

The leaders of the other three parties in government welcomed the election of the 56-year-old, who is considered by many political commentators to be a media-savvy, team-playing moderate.

swissinfo: Switzerland is by no means a poor country and its population is relatively well off. Why does it need a Social Democratic Party?

Hans-Jürg Fehr: Because part of our population isn’t so well off, and because there are several policy areas in which there is room for improvement. We also have to protect some of the policies other parties would like to abolish.

swissinfo: Where does the future of the Social Democratic Party lie given that it can hardly claim to be a workers party.

H-J.F.: I don’t agree. We are still the party for lower or middle-income earners. In other words, we are the party for this country’s workers.

The make-up of the vast majority of the population has changed in the last 50 years. In terms of there being a classic working class, that still exists in a way but it’s largely disenfranchised because it is made up immigrants who have no right to vote.

A large part of those on low incomes in Switzerland are pensioners and to a certain extent we have lost their support.

swissinfo: Since last year’s parliamentary elections there has been a definite shift to the right in both the government and parliament. How can the Social Democrats get their policies across?

H-J.F.: To start with, we have to build up support at the ballot box in nationwide votes. That’s why this year is such an important one for the Social Democrats.

These votes are important and we must win them to be taken seriously again in parliament and in government.

If we can prove that Switzerland cannot be governed without us – and we can only prove that at the ballot box – then we’ll have better chances to create alliances at a parliamentary level.

swissinfo: Many Social Democrat politicians claim that they are more leftwing than their European counterparts. Is that really the case?

H-J.F.: Yes, because the political system in this country is completely different: the system of a government and an opposition doesn’t exist. All the major parties are part of the government but they can force a nationwide vote if they disagree with government policy.

That means that the Social Democratic Party can remain more leftwing. It doesn’t have to move to the centre.

swissinfo: Where is the potential for a growth in support for the Social Democrats?

H-J.F.: There is a large part of the Swiss electorate that might be prepared to vote for the Social Democrats. That’s especially true for some of the [centre-right] Radical Party’s supporters – particularly since that party has shifted more to the right.

That doesn’t mean that we have to change our political direction. There are several policy areas in which we can attract the support of these people because our values are the same as theirs.

At the moment the Radicals are only concentrating on the economy rather social issues – an area that concerns some of their supporters who, for instance, want Switzerland to open up towards Europe and the world.

swissinfo: What is the role of a party president in Switzerland?

H-J.F.: For me, it’s important that the Social Democratic Party – which is something of a broad church – doesn’t waste its energies on internal squabbles.

That means creating harmony is one of the party leader’s main jobs, because we need to focus all our efforts on fighting political battles with our opponents.

swissinfo: As the newly elected president where would you like to take the party over the next four years?

H-J.F.: I don’t think the party has to change its position politically. But it has to get stronger and win more support.

In the 2007 election we want to be the biggest party at the ballot box – and that’s the main goal.

swissinfo: How do you respond to the accusation that in recent years the Social Democrats have failed to set Switzerland’s political agenda?

H-J.F.: In a sense there is some truth in saying that we’re on the defensive at the moment because of the shift to the right in parliament and in the government.

They want to undo many of the social policies for which we have fought in the past. We actually have our own ideas as to how policy areas can be reformed for the better.

For example, child benefit, which is at the moment far too bureaucratic, should be simplified. Our plans would achieve that without costing the taxpayer money.

swissinfo: How important for you is the image Switzerland has abroad?

H-J.F.: One has to be heard and seen in the world to be noticed and I believe Switzerland is in a pretty good position.

It has a long-standing tradition of making its voice heard, for example in offering its good offices. At the moment the Geneva Accord [the Swiss-backed unofficial peace plan for the Middle East] is a good example of that tradition.


Hans-Jürg Fehr was elected party president on March 6, replacing the outgoing leader Christiane Brunner.
The 56-year-old joined the Social Democrats in 1977.
He was elected to the cantonal parliament of Schaffhausen in 1983.
In 1999 he was elected to the House of Representatives.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR