Anti-immigrant Swiss leader is ousted

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The Independent Online

Switzerland's right-wing firebrand Christoph Blocher, who has come under fire for his staunchly anti-immigration policies, has been ousted from the coalition cabinet in a last-minute ambush by his foes that brought a rare piece of drama to the Alpine nation's usually staid political arena.

Mr Blocher, whose Swiss Peoples' Party (SVP) had their strongest-ever showing in national elections earlier this year, had been serving as Justice Minister but after manoeuvring by the three other parties in the consensus government, found himself booted out of the new cabinet.

Some artists were quick to reinvent the infamous cartoon that Blocher's party splashed on posters around the country in the run-up to the October polls, which depicted three pure white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag with a crafty flick of the back legs. Yesterday Blocher's grinning face had been stitched on to the black animal, alongside the caption "For more security: get Blocher out of the cabinet".

The surprise move shook up the stable world of Swiss politics, as the SVP threatened to pull out of the cabinet altogether unless Mr Blocher was reinstated. "If Blocher is not elected then the SVP will go into opposition," the party's outgoing president Uli Maurer told Swiss television shortly after the vote.

Switzerland prides itself on its cherished collegial model: no party can obtain an absolute majority and so opposing political forces have to co-exist in a consensus government, where the people have the final say through a system of referendums. As a result, the make-up of Switzerland's Government and the allocation of the seven ministerial seats between parties has changed only once since 1959.

Mr Blocher was also involved that time around, taking an extra cabinet seat for the SVP at the expense of the Christian Democrats (CVP) in 2003.

After helping the SVP win 29 percent of the vote in October the biggest share ever recorded in a Swiss general election Mr Blocher was expected to be a shoo-in for re-election to the cabinet as the Swiss parliament gathered to sign off on the line-up for the new four-year term. But following a late-night plotting session, the SVP's rivals yesterday proposed a more moderate SVP politician Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf to run against Mr Blocher.

It was unclear last night if Ms Widmer-Schlumpf, who won the parliamentary vote by 125 votes to 115, would accept the seat. However hundreds of protestors gathered outside the parliament in Berne yesterday to deliver an unequivocal message to her. "Eveline say Yes," one banner read, as supporters threw showers of confetti in celebration at Mr Blocher's ousting.

"Mr Blocher is now getting his comeuppance for his four years in power. He is reaping what he's sown," the Young Socialists said in a statement, making specific reference to his xenophobic agenda.

The 67-year-old billionaire industrialist helped the SVP to run a hugely populist anti-Europe and anti-foreigner campaign. Adopting the single issue of immigration, the party's strategy clearly found favour among middle-class and rural voters, worried that more than a fifth of Switzerland's population was made up of foreigners. But the notorious "black sheep" posters sparked concern at home and abroad, with violent demonstrations unfolding in Berne and the United Nations denouncing them as "openly racist".

Some analysts noted that while Mr Blocher had been criticised in the media for his xenophobic polices, this was probably not the main cause of his downfall. "It was more likely his style. He pursued the populist line, attacking institutions and crying about problems without offering solutions," explained Wolf Linder, a professor of political science at the University of Berne.

While few expect this latest political storm to really spell the end of almost half-a-century of Swiss stability, some predicted the dimming of Mr Blocher's political star. "It would be rather difficult for Mr Blocher to come back because of his age," Prof Linder said. "The party could still re-elect him as party leader but without a cabinet post, he's definitely weakened."