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News Analysis: Switzerland the Latest Flash Point in the Ascent of Europe’s Far Right

October 27, 1999
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Fears that voters across Europe are succumbing to the pitches of hard-right populists were given credence by the latest election results from Switzerland.

As a result of Sunday’s parliamentary vote, widely described by Swiss commentators as marking a watershed in Swiss politics, the right-wing People’s Party came in second and is poised to snare a larger role in the government.

Political analysts here were stunned by the showing of the People’s Party, which had campaigned on a nationalist, anti-immigrant platform and called on Switzerland not to join the European Union.

In 1995, the party placed a distant fourth.

Sunday’s vote took place less than a month after Austria’s Freedom Party, led by populist firebrand Jorg Haider — notorious for past comments praising Hitler and the SS — came in second in that nation’s parliamentary elections.

The voting in Switzerland threw a spotlight on the dominant figure of the People’s Party, Christoph Blocher.

Political commentators are already speculating that Blocher, the head of the Zurich branch of the party, may get a Cabinet seat.

Swiss Jewish leaders have repeatedly spoken out against Blocher, who has made speeches before Parliament laced with thinly veiled anti-Semitic appeals.

In 1997, when Switzerland was confronting charges that it profited from wartime dealings with the Nazis, Blocher launched a campaign to prevent public funds from being used to support victims of the Holocaust.

That same year, Blocher, a millionaire businessman, told a rally that Switzerland had no reason to apologize for doing business with Nazi Germany.

Now, Jewish leaders are warily watching the ascent of Blocher and his party.

“We are concerned and worried” by the showing of the People’s Party, Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, told JTA.

A leader of Geneva’s Jewish community, referring to the campaign Blocher launched in 1997, said Blocher has been rewarded by Swiss voters for his insistence that the government should not pay a cent for any “wrongdoing perpetrated by the Swiss during World War II.”

This week, drawing more fire from Jewish leaders here and abroad, Blocher told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot that the threats of a boycott that Jewish groups made against Swiss firms in 1997 and 1998 were similar to Nazi-era boycotts of Jewish businesses.

Those threats came during a period of often-contentious negotiations in which Switzerland was being urged to settle Holocaust-era claims.

In August 1998, Switzerland’s two largest banks agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement of those claims.

The tactics Jewish groups used during those negotiations were “clear blackmail,” Blocher told Yediot, adding that those actions left many Swiss people feeling “threatened and extorted.”

In New York, Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress — which was actively involved in the two years of negotiations – – criticized those comments.

“Switzerland now has an opportunity to stand up to this extremist,” he said.

Swiss Jewish leader Lyssy called Blocher’s comparison to the Nazi boycotts “unacceptable.”

Blocher also told Yediot that his party opposes “any manifestation of anti- Semitism and racism.”

But it was just such manifestations that helped Blocher’s party in Sunday’s vote, Swiss Jewish leaders charge.

In the week before the vote, Blocher was accused of praising a book that denies the Holocaust occurred.

Blocher responded by claiming that he never read “On the Decline of Swiss Freedom,” but liked the title.

The charge, which was leveled against Blocher by his political opponents, backfired and provided him with support in Sunday’s voting from extremists and anti-Semites, say Swiss Jewish observers.

“I am not an extremist,” he told Swiss television on the eve of the election. “I reject any form of revisionism as absurd.”

Just the same, he refused to explain his positions for Switzerland’s two Jewish newspapers or tell them why he recently said he was “pleased” to receive an anti-Semitic letter.

Not all of the leadership of the People’s Party is happy with some of the elements supporting Blocher.

Adolf Ogi, a highly popular member of the party who serves as defense minister, said in an interview after the election that “extremists and anti-Semites have no place” in the Swiss political spectrum.

He also said his party should “clean” such elements from its ranks.

Ogi is currently the party’s sole representative in the Cabinet, but Sunday’s vote has prompted Blocher to call for a change in that situation.

“We have a right to a second seat in the government,” Blocher said after ballots were tabulated this week.

For the time being, the current Cabinet lineup will remain.

But that may change on Dec. 15, when the Parliament votes on the Cabinet’s makeup.

At that same time, Ogi is expected to be named to the annual rotating presidency of Switzerland.

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