Europe's most famously stable democracy was plunged into a new and uncertain era when the controversial champion of the far-right People's Party, Christoph Blocher, shocked moderates at home and abroad by claiming a cabinet seat yesterday.
His arrival doubles the party's strength in the governing coalition and represents the first swing in power since the four-party coalition was formed in 1959. The right-wing triumph in the cabinet elections immediately led to angry demonstrations outside the parliament building.
Mr Blocher's dedication to isolationist politics goes beyond his ardent opposition to EU membership. He is hostile towards any form of openness towards the outside world. He believes that even joining the United Nations in 2002 was a dangerous mistake which jeopardised Swiss sovereignty and neutrality.
Switzerland is currently embroiled in complex negotiations with the EU on a number of fronts, and there will now be doubts on the European side as to how worthwhile these are likely to prove. Mr Blocher's influence seems certain to reduce the willingness of the Swiss to compromise on any issue he perceives as touching the national interest.
Even within his party there are those who loathe him. His money and massive public profile have, however, been key factors in its rise to pre-eminence in the polls. He has set himself up as the ultimate Swiss traditionalist, the saviour of ordinary people and as the man prepared to say the unsayable.
His belligerent, bullying tactics and his habit of hammering away at issues other politicians would rather avoid, have left opponents looking shifty and tongue-tied on television debates. His vision for preserving his country from pernicious foreign influences is no less extreme than those of Austria's Jörg Haider.
Mr Blocher has goaded political moderates in a series of ferocious referendum campaigns over recent years, most recently when he attempted, in effect, to close Switzerland's door to asylum-seekers. On that occasion, and in campaigning for a cap on the percentage of foreigners in the population, he consistently equated immigration with criminality. During the October election campaign the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, based on Swiss soil in Geneva, condemned the party for systematically inciting hatred of foreigners.
To achieve his promotion, he had to attack a political system that has run like clockwork for over 40 years. Throughout that period, cabinet elections have been predictable rituals, with two seats going to each of the three centrist parties and one to the People's Party. This came to be known as the "magic formula".
But the last ten years have seen an upturn in the People's Party's popularity and when it emerged from October's parliamentary elections with more votes than any of its rivals it went on an unprecedented offensive.It was not alone in considering that it was under represented at cabinet level. Its nomination of Christoph Blocher, however, was a clear provocation and set the parties on a collision course.
Traditionally, ministers are always re-elected unless they have fallen into disgrace. The centre-right Christian Democrats pointed out that neither of its two ministers had done anything wrong - but the People's Party insisted that it regarded one of their seats as rightfully Mr Blocher's. This would give the People's Party two seats in the cabinet, while the Christian Democrats would be reduced to just one, reflecting the two parties' shares of the vote.
Mr Blocher has made no secret of his loathing for the justice minister, Ruth Metzler, whom he accuses of a disastrously liberal approach to law and order issues (including immigration). Mr Blocher entered the fray to challenge Ms Metzler; it took three ballots before his triumph was complete andhe had orchestrated the first de-selection of a minister for 130 years.
He then confirmed the fears of his enemies by stressing that he would use his new position to address the "problems facing the land". So grave was the situation, he said, that he would prefer his supporters not to celebrate his election.
EUROPE'S FAR RIGHT FIREBRANDS
The leader of the far right Vlaams Blok is the pariah of Belgian politics. Despite his growing success at the ballot box - winning nearly one-third of the vote in Antwerp in the last local elections - Mr Dewinter has been excluded from power at national level through a pact among mainstream parties. But the party, whose manifesto includes plans to close down mosques and separate schools for the children of immigrants who refuse to integrate, has become a successful repository of protest votes.
MARINE LE PEN
Known in France's National Front party as "the clone" for the striking resemblance she bears to her famous father, Marine Le Pen claims she intends to bring her party back from the crushing defeat it suffered after the public backlash against it in last year's elections. She plans to widen its appeal and tone down nationalist rhetoric. Currently vice-president, Marine will lead the party's candidates into France's regional and European elections next year, and is being groomed to take over the reins after the 2007 presidential elections.
Italy's Alleanza Nazionale is the lineal descendant of Mussolini's Fascists, and in 1994 the party's leader, Gianfranco Fini, now the Deputy Prime Minister, described Mussolini as "the greatest statesman of the 20th century". But in contrast to Christoph Blocher and other European rightist leaders, Mr Fini has since then been striving to take his party towards the centre. Recently he proposed giving voting rights to legal immigrants, and on a visit to Israel last month he described Fascism as "the ultimate evil".
Austria's most contentious politician famously praised the "orderly" employment policies of Nazi Germany, and described Auschwitz as a "punishment camp". Known for his charisma and steely ambition, Haider's return to lead Austria's Freedom Party last year confirmed his intention to play a prominent role in the country's politics, having previously been pressured to quit as leader after the Freedom Party entered the ruling coalition. However, in a snap general election in November the party lost around two-thirds of its support.
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