When he was elected to the Swiss Cabinet in December 2003, Christoph Blocher celebrated his triumph with a glass of white wine. Not only did the billionaire industrialist get a seat on the seven-member Federal Council Switzerland's executive government but his right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), won a landslide victory in the polls with 29% of the vote this year.
What a difference four years make.
Last week, after the joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate convened to re-elect all seven members of the Cabinet for the next four-year term, Blocher had no reason to pop any corks. In a surprising twist of events the two bodies, which constitute the parliament, voted to oust Blocher, 67, who became Justice Minister during his Cabinet tenure and generated widespread criticism for his lack of collegiality, confrontational style and divisive politics. In his place the legislators elected his more moderate SVP colleague, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who was not even in the running for the Cabinet seat.
"Many people got fed up with Blocher's aggressive and combative manner," says Georg Lutz, a political scientist at Bern University. "When you are part of a coalition government you should try to find common ground with the others. But he just pursued his own agenda and polarized the whole country."
By all accounts, Blocher, the most outspoken and controversial figure of the SVP, a populist rural party that has morphed into a national force, was not a team player. Throughout his regime he often acted in an "authoritarian way," says Thomas Fleiner, professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law at the Federalism Institute in Fribourg, even going as far as trying to "exclude members of his own party from various committees because they had not followed the party's official line."
He also used his position of power to promote his party's platform that includes controversial measures such as forced deportation of foreigners who had been repeatedly convicted of violent crimes, and of immigrant families whose minor children committed serious infractions. The xenophobic rhetoric drew criticism from a United Nations anti-racism watchdog and other humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International.
In a country accustomed to civility and consensus rather than conflict, the unprecedented ousting of a Cabinet member for the most part, ministers leave the Federal Council out of their own volition has been hotly debated on the streets and in the highest reaches of government. Although some members of his party were visibly upset when the election results were announced, the center and left parties, which joined ranks to vote Blocher out of the office, expressed their satisfaction that "democracy has prevailed." And, in a nationwide survey conducted shortly after the election, 60 percent of Swiss citizens said they were happy about Blocher's exclusion. "There is a big sense of relief that the legislators were brave enough to force this change," Lutz says.
In the end, the man who came into the Cabinet with a bang left with a whimper and a rare show of humility to boot. "Even though I am not leaving my post voluntarily, I am not bitter," Blocher told the politicians assembled in the parliament to bid him farewell. He also apologized for any offenses, insisting "it was never my intention to hurt anyone."
Blocher's tactful departure is not resonating within the SVP. In a terse statement posted by the country's leading party on its website, it accuses legislators of retaliating against Blocher out of "jealousy and frustration over our successes." And because the lawmakers replaced Blocher with a moderate member of his own party, who might try to blunt the sharper edges of her predecessor's hard-line policies rather than toe the official stance, the SVP has threatened to leave the government and form an opposition party. The move would undermine Switzerland's 50-year-old "magic formula" under which four main political parties share seven Cabinet seats, balancing different cultural and linguistic regions that make up Switzerland.
However, political analysts like Lutz believe the talk of opposition is pure braggadocio. "The SVP has been threatening and bullying politicians and population for a long time," he says.
Fleiner says that even though it has nearly one-third of seats in the parliament, the SVP would not be able to sustain itself outside of the coalition government. "No opposition party will win wide popular support as long as only 30 percent of the electorate are behind it."
Aside from shaking up Switzerland's placid political scene, Blocher's downfall "will not have any radical impact in terms of policy or stability," Lutz says, because under the Swiss system of direct, grass-roots democracy voters can challenge any legislative decision by launching a referendum.
In terms of Switzerland's image abroad, where Blocher's antics have been generating headlines, no major changes are expected either. "We are not known around the world for the SVP or Blocher," Lutz says. "We are known for Roger Federer and chocolate."