Far-right ready to shake Swiss politics with cabinet seat

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Seven weeks after going to the polls, the people of Switzerland are about to discover the punchline to what was, by Swiss standards, an uncommonly knockabout election.

The parties that have shared power for almost a half a century will decide today whether to give the millionaire figurehead of the far right, Christoph Blocher, a seat in the cabinet. If they invite him aboard, one of Europe's most xenophobic mainstream parties will double its share of power.

Competitions such as the one in Zurich's daily Tagblatt - "Win SFr1,000 [£450] by forecasting the make-up of the new cabinet!" - are just one sign of the unprecedented excitement gripping this sedate nation. Pundits and politicians alike admit having little idea how these historic cabinet elections will turn out.

The elections are historic because they will end more than four decades of government according to the "magic formula". This power-sharing agreement has dictated the balance of coalition cabinets since 1959. At that time the People's Party was the junior partner, and received a single seat, while the three centrist parties - the left-leaning Social Democrats and more right-wing Christian Democrats and Free Democrats - provided two ministers each.

Since emerging from October's parliamentary elections with the largest single share of the vote, the People's Party has been asserting its right to a second seat. Traditionally, each party nominates two candidates for each of "its" seats, allowing the other parties to choose between them. This system helps ensure that the members of the cabinet are acceptable to all the parties and thus capable of functioning as a team.

Such is the confidence on the far right, however, that the People's Party is insisting on Mr Blocher - the most divisive figure in Swiss politics - becoming its second minister.

The second largest party, the Social Democrats, says it would struggle to work with a man who has demonstrated belligerent intolerance towards asylum-seekers and favours isolationism. The two centre-right parties have been torn asunder as each tries to defend its own two seats.

If Mr Blocher is not voted into the cabinet today, his party has said it will pull out of the coalition and enter opposition. Opponents of Mr Blochersay he would be even more dangerous free of the responsibilities of power-sharing.

Observers liken the controversy to the recent furore over the rise of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria.