The Swiss People’s Party, the SVP, is very clear about its likes and dislikes: tightening up on immigration – for; abortion – against; closer ties with the European Union and the United Nations – against. These are some of the issues Ueli Maurer will raise in government in Switzerland. He rejects outright accusations that he is racist: saying his wife was born and raised in Ghana, he has many black friends, and eats more couscous at home than traditional Swiss dishes.
But he revels in his opinionated image, saying being middle of the road takes you nowhere. He is quoted as saying that journalists disappear if you talk about crime, but if you talk about crime by foreigners, everyone listens.
Despite Switzerland’s image as a quiet conservative nation, Maurer has been subjected to merciless satire on television – depicted as a man lacking in charisma, a mere bag-carrier for party strongman Christoph Blocher. But that is not necessarily fair: first elected 17 years ago, Maurer may have worked in Blocher’s shadow but he has often won praise, even from opponents, for his integrity and political nous.
The SVP’s return to government follows twelve months in opposition. A year ago, almost to the day, Blocher failed to win re-election to the cabinet after four stormy years, and his party refused to put up a compromise candidate. For the first time in 80 years, the SVP was out of office. “One thing is very clear to me, and it is a good thing about our country,” said Blocher at the time. “Parliament can get rid of someone it does not like, but it cannot change the political course of the nation.”
So, the SVP rises again from the ashes, once more taking its place at the top table of government. But Ueli Maurer faces a delicate decision: can he maintain the atmosphere of compromise which underpins Swiss politics, or will he be forced to toe party leader Blocher’s more extreme line?