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Christoph Blocher
Christoph Blocher

Christoph Blocher (German pronunciation: [ˈkrɪ⁠stɔ⁠f ˈblɔ⁠⁠xər]; born 11 October 1940) is a Swiss politician, industrialist, and former member of the Swiss Federal Council heading the Federal Department of Justice and Police (2004–2007). He served as vice president of the Swiss People's Party until 24 March 2018. As an industrialist, he became very wealthy as CEO and majority shareholder in the EMS-Chemie corporation, now run by his daughter, Magdalena Martullo-Blocher.[1]

A controversial figure,[2] Blocher is known for his role in transforming Swiss politics,[2][3] shifting it to the right, as well as the Swiss People's Party,[3] which "developed a eurosceptic and anti-immigration agenda that has shaken up the cozy post-war consensual system prevailing in neutral Switzerland," and has become "the dominant force in national politics."[3] In addition, Blocher served as the de facto leader of the SVP and a symbol of the party.[4]

Early life and education

The son of a pastor, Blocher was born in 1940, the seventh of eleven children.[2][5] Blocher served in the Swiss military as an Aerial Defense Regiment Commander and Colonel.[6] Blocher earned a certificate at the Wülflingen school of agriculture. In 1961, Blocher began studying independently for the Swiss Matura. In 1963, Blocher completed and passed the exams for the Swiss Matura and in 1964, he passed an additional exam in Latin to pursue legal studies at university. Then studied law at the University of Zürich, in Montpellier and in Paris. He has a DEA degree in law, and in 1971, he was awarded a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Zürich.[7]

While at the University of Zürich, Blocher co-founded the Students' Ring, which opposed the 1968 student protests and the left-wing politics on university campuses.[7]

Business career

Blocher started working at EMS-Chemie in 1969 as a student in its legal department.[1][8] In 1972, Blocher was voted Chairman of the Board and CEO of the company, and in 1983, he purchased a majority of EMS-Chemie.[1][8]

When Blocher was voted into the Swiss Federal Council in 2003, he retired from all business functions in EMS and sold his majority holding to his four children on 30 December 2003.[1][8] Blocher's oldest daughter, Magdalena Martullo-Blocher, became CEO of EMS on 1 January 2004.[1][8]

Political career

Blocher built his political career through campaigning for smaller government, for a free-market economy, against Switzerland's membership in the European Union and for more tightly controlled immigration. He stated he entered the political arena by chance due to a local zoning dispute.[2] Blocher joined the SVP in 1972 and became the SVP president of the SVP chapter in Meilen in 1974.[7] After being elected to the Cantonal Council of Zürich in 1975,[7] Blocher was elected to the Swiss National Council and represented the canton of Zürich there from 25 November 1979 until his election to the federal council on 12 December 2003 as a deputy of the Swiss People's Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei/Union démocratique du centre; SVP/UDC), and then again from 4 December 2011 to 30 May 2014.[9][10]

In addition to leading the Zürich chapter of the Swiss People's Party, Blocher was a cofounder of the Action for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland (Aktion für eine unabhängige und neutrale Schweiz), and he served as the president of the organization from its foundation in 1986 until his election to the Federal Council in 2003.[11][12][13]

When Blocher was elected president of the Zürich SVP in 1977, he declared his intent to oversee significant change in the political line of the Zürich SVP, bringing an end to debates that aimed to open the party up to a wide array of opinions. Blocher soon consolidated his power in Zürich, and began to renew the organisational structures, activities, campaigning style and political agenda of the local branch.[14][15] The young members of the party were boosted with the establishment of a cantonal Young SVP (JSVP) in 1977, as well as political training courses. The ideology of the Zürich branch was also reinforced, and the rhetoric hardened,[15] which resulted in the best election result for the Zürich branch in fifty years in the 1979 federal election, with an increase from 11.3% to 14.5%. This was contrasted with the stable level in the other cantons, although the support also stagnated in Zürich through the 1980s.[16]

The struggle that existed between the SVP's largest branches of Bern and Zürich continued into the early 1990s. While the Bern-oriented faction represented the old moderate style of the SVP, the Zürich-oriented wing led by Blocher represented a new radical right-wing populist agenda. The Zürich wing began to politicise asylum issues, and the question of European integration started to dominate Swiss political debates. They also adopted more confrontational methods.[17][15] The Zürich-wing followingly started to gain ground in the party at the expense of the Bern-wing, and the party became increasingly centralised as a national party, in contrast to the traditional Swiss system of parties with loose organisational structures and weak central powers.[18] During the 1990s, the party also doubled its number of cantonal branches (to eventually be represented in all cantons), which strengthened the power of the Zürich-wing since most new sections supported their agenda.[19] Although Swiss political parties tended to lack dominant national leaders, Blocher became the de facto leader of the national SVP and one of the most famous Swiss politicians.[20]

In 1991, the party for the first time became the strongest party in Zürich, with 20.2% of the vote.[21] The party broke through in the early 1990s in both Zürich and Switzerland as a whole, and experienced dramatically increasing results in elections.[22] From being the smallest of the four governing parties at the start of the 1990s, the party by the end of the decade emerged as the strongest party in Switzerland.[23] At the same time, the party expanded its electoral base towards new voter demographics.[24] The SVP in general won its best results in cantons where the cantonal branches adopted the agenda of the Zürich wing.[25] In the 1999 federal election, the SVP for the first time became the strongest party in Switzerland with 22.5% of the vote, a 12.6% share increase. This was the biggest increase of votes for any party in the entire history of the Swiss proportional electoral system, which was introduced in 1919.[26]

Federal councillor

The People's Party emerged as the largest party in the National Council in the Federal Assembly election of 19 October 2003 with 26.6% of the vote. Blocher personally topped the poll in Zürich, and became Switzerland's most prominent and controversial politician.

Since 1929, the People's Party (known until 1971 as the Party of Farmers, Traders and Independents [BGB]) had held a seat on the seven-member Swiss Federal Council. At the time the current coalition formed in 1959, the BGB was the smallest party represented on the Council. By 2003 it had become the largest party, and demanded another seat at the expense of the Christian Democrats, now the smallest party. The SVP nominated Blocher as its second candidate. This generated a good deal of controversy; previously most SVP councillors had come from the party's more moderate centrist-agrarian wing.

After threats of pulling the other People's Party member, Samuel Schmid (a member of the centrist wing), off the council and going into opposition, Blocher was elected on 10 December 2003. He took the seat of Ruth Metzler-Arnold, only the third federal councillor in history (and the first since 1872) not to be reelected.

In the third round Blocher beat Metzler with 121 to 116 votes.[27] The election was anticipated as a major media event[28] and widely watched as a live broadcast. After Blocher's election, members of the Swiss political Left spontaneously protested.[29]

As a result of a reshuffling of Federal Council seats, Blocher became head of the Federal Department of Justice and Police.

In December 2003, the New York Times published a letter from the Anti-Defamation League citing Blocher, who had been convicted for anti-Semitic libel by a Zürich court in 1999, for making anti-Semitic remarks in relation to claims for restitution of Nazi-seized assets that were hidden in Swiss banks. Blocher declared that Jews "were only interested in money."[30] The letter also reported that in 1997, Blocher had stated the following that had resulted in his 1999 conviction: "They (the Jews) could blackmail banks, you can blackmail governments, you can blackmail national banks, you can force them to give in. (But) I would like to see if they can blackmail an entire people at the ballot box. They have to get through the eye of this needle, and I will do my utmost that we do not yield."

During 2004, Blocher's unconventionally unaccommodating stance towards his fellow federal councillors was the cause for speculations about the future of the Swiss concordance system. He was attacked by his colleague Pascal Couchepin in an interview with the NZZ newspaper in the Sunday edition of 3 October. This was unprecedented in Switzerland; members of the Federal Council traditionally do not publicly criticise each other.

In a public speech held at his cantonal party's annual Albisgüetlitagung in Zürich on 20 January 2006, Blocher labeled two Albanians seeking political asylum as "criminals", although no judicial verdict had been reached at the time. Later, when confronted, he claimed before the Swiss Council of States (the upper house) that he had only used the word 'accused'. Since the speech had been recorded, he then had to admit that he had used the word "criminals". In July 2006, a commission of the Council of States reprimanded Blocher, stating that the setting of false prejudice and making false statement to the Council of States constituted unacceptable behaviour for a Federal Councillor.

On 5 September 2007, a parliamentary committee sharply criticised Blocher for overstepping his mandate in his handling of the resignation of former chief prosecutor Valentin Roschacher in 2006. In addition, documents confiscated in March by the German authorities from private banker Oskar Holenweger under suspicion of money laundering were presented as supporting a possible involvement of Blocher in a plot to oust Roschacher from office. Blocher denied any involvement in such a plan. These developments happened to coincide with a campaign alleging a "secret plan to oust Blocher" initiated by the SVP on 27 August, and party spokesperson S. R. Jäggi on 6 September confirmed that campaign was referring to the documents incriminating Blocher in the Roschacher affair now revealed.[31][32] Tension surrounding the "Blocher-Roschacher affair" was fuelled by the upcoming 2007 federal election. On 25 September, the National Council (the lower house) decided to press a debate of the affair before the elections, overturning a decision by the council's office.

Blocher was a target for the opposition on 18 September 2007, when his appearance at the Comptoir suisse (Swiss fair) in Lausanne was disrupted by protesters.[33]

In January 2012, it was reported that Blocher had received information from an unnamed whistleblower regarding foreign exchange trades at Bank Sarasin made by Swiss National Bank chairman Philipp Hildebrand's wife Kashya.[34] The alleged whistleblower was subsequently fired and faced criminal investigations under Swiss banking secrecy laws. Hildebrand denied accusations of insider trading, claimed to be the "victim of a smear campaign" and said that his political foes endangered the secrecy laws and "the interests of Switzerland" with the accusations.[35] Blocher had called for Hildebrand's resignation in 2011 in the wake of SNB's foreign exchange-related losses[34] and continued strong calls after the FX-trades story grew,[36] before Hildebrand ultimately resigned.

In the Swiss Federal Council elections of 12 December 2007, Blocher did not receive the necessary number of votes in the parliament to retain his seat. In his stead, the parliament elected Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (a moderate SVP member), who accepted the mandate on 13 December 2007.[37] Blocher thus became the fourth federal councillor to be ousted from office in the history of the Swiss Federal State, following Ruth Metzler whom he had replaced the previous term, besides Ulrich Ochsenbein and Jean-Jacques Challet-Venel in the 19th century.

Following the resignation of federal councillor Samuel Schmid on 12 November 2008, Blocher decided to run for the office again. The People's Party nominated him together with Ueli Maurer. In view of the 2007 election results, Blocher's chances to be re-elected were thought to be very slim.[38] Not surprisingly, he had no chance of being re-elected and had to make room for his party colleague Ueli Maurer, who won the election in the end.

Post councillorship

In 2008, Blocher became one of the 5 vice presidents of the SVP.[39]

After the extremely large 2007/2008 losses posted by UBS, its chairman Marcel Ospel resigned on 1 April 2008, and Mr. Blocher was rumoured to be considered as his replacement.[40][41] However the role went to Peter Kurer, the bank’s general counsel.

Blocher was important in the success of the 9 February 2014 referendum on immigration quotas in Switzerland and continues to support policies designed to limit immigration to Switzerland.[42]

Blocher announced that he would resign from the National Council on 31 May 2014, saying that he was “wasting too much time in parliament” and that he wanted to focus on other political priorities like the implementation of the successful referendum "Against mass immigration" and a planned initiative on preventing Switzerland joining the European Union.[9]

In January 2016, soon after the 2015 federal election, where the Swiss People's Party received record gains, Blocher announced that he would not stand for reelection as vice president of the SVP when his term ended in April.[5] Despite this, Blocher stated that he would remain involved in politics and would "push his anti-EU and anti-immigration campaigns",[3] and he would remain in a senior position in the SVP.[43]

Blocher supported the popular initiative "For the effective expulsion of foreign criminals", held on 28 February 2016, but after its rejection, Blocher urged the SVP to use its position in the government, rather than popular initiatives, to advance its agenda.[44][45]

In an interview in April 2016, Blocher stated that United States President Ronald Reagan "was the best president I have seen" and that he thought that, like Reagan, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump would be underestimated but more competent and great than expected.[46] After Trump's election victory, Blocher stated that his victory was a warning to world leaders not to ignore the people's concerns on issues such as immigration, saying "people feel powerless against those who rule them, and for them, Trump is a release valve."[47]

In March 2018, the SVP announced that Blocher would resign as the party's chief strategist, though he would continue to remain involved in Swiss politics.[48][49][50][51]

Public image

Some have seen Blocher is seen as the face of the SVP, and his presence in the party was a major factor in voter turnout among SVP voters.[4] Damir Skenderovic, professor at the University of Fribourg has compared Blocher to Jörg Haider of the Freedom Party of Austria and Alliance for the Future of Austria, to Carl I. Hagen of the Norwegian Progress Party, and to Umberto Bossi of the Italian Lega Nord.[4] According to Steve Bannon, an American right-wing populist political and media figure, Blocher was "Trump before Trump", in reference to United States President Donald Trump, because of his early opposition to the European Union.[52][53][54][55]

Personal life

Blocher is married and has three daughters (Magdalena, Miriam, Rahel), a son (Markus), and twelve grandchildren.[6]

See also

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