Brugger was born in Bellinzonia, a small, ancient town in southern Switzerland which is usually bypassed by tourists heading for the Italian lakes. He grew up in a secure environment when, even in Switzerland, there was considerable turbulence in inter-war society. As an engine driver on the Swissrailways, his father, Alois Brugger, was part of the working-class elite witha secure job.
After studying at the universities of Zurich, London and Paris, Ernst joined another elite profession as a secondary school teacher in Gossau,1936. He married a medical student, Lory Ringer, in the following year. Switzerland was under pressure from its mighty neighbour, Hitler's Germany, and the majority German-speakers were a special target for Nazi propaganda.
Gossau, a small industrial town, is not far from the German frontier. Brugger did his compulsory service in what were at that time the French- orientated armed forces. That he eventually rose to the rank of major reveals that he took military service seriously, took courses and did his reserve training.
Brugger joined the middle-of-the-road Radical Democratic Party and became politically active. This was partly under the influence of the times, and also because party membership played an important part in public service. The Radicals recruited from among the secular middle classes, especially among the German-speaking Protestants.
In 1947 Brugger was elected to the council of the Canton, the Canton having powers similar to US states. From 1949 to 1959 he served as the mayor of Gossau, giving up this post when he was elected to the government of Zurich Canton. His departments were interior and justice. He had to deal with the then difficult relations between the Catholic Church and state, and the ever-present problem of cross-border workers. In his last two years, 1967-69, he had the economic policy portfolio in Zurich.
His two main problems in government were Switzerland's relations with the emerging European Economic Community to which its neighbours West Germany, France and Italy belonged, and the infinitely more difficult problem of foreign labour in Switzerland. Along with Switzerland's other EFTA partners, Brugger was able to negotiate a settlement of the first problem in 1972. It brought some relief for the Swiss watch and clock industry.
The second problem brought out strong passions on both sides of the arguments. Roughly 20 per cent of Switzerland's work force were foreigners, the largest group being Italians. They were followed by Germans and Spaniards. There were significant groups from Austria, Czechoslovakia, France and Yugoslavia. They faced severe restrictions, border medical checks, and, if they ever managed to become Swiss citizens, compulsory military service stretching well into middle age.
DrJames Schwarzenbach led the National Campaign Against Foreign Penetration of People and Homeland. Switzerland needed foreign labour to keep its economy expanding yet there were genuine fears that its character and way of life would disappear. Foreigners were welcomed as tourists, but were often cold-shouldered when they were recruited to work there. Swiss moving from one Canton to another in a different language group were not alwayas welcome either. The matter came to a head in the referendum of 20 October 1974.
Schwarzenbach proposed an amendment to the Swiss constitution designed to effect a drastic reduction of the foreign population. On a turnout of almost 70 per cent, it failed by 1,691,870 votes to 878,739. Brugger, who was, for 1974, President of the Swiss Confederation (head of state), expressed his satisfaction with the result. He believed, however, that the vote showed that the government must work to stabilise the foreign population and then bring about a "moderate and organic reduction". The problem has remained an issue in Swiss politics and is a factor when Swiss membership of the European Community is discussed.
Brugger resigned from political office on medical grounds in 1978. However, he presided over the Swiss People's Bank for some years until 1985 and was involved in various charities. He also spent more time on his hobby, a model railway.
Ernst Brugger, politician: born Bellinzona, Switzerland 10 March 1914; married 1937 Lory Ringer (five sons); died Gruningen, Switzerland 21 June 1998.