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Swiss federal council elections: a who's who of the candidates

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Swiss federal council elections: a who's who of the candidates
The four candidates for the elections. Photo: Swiss Parliament/CVP
21:51 CET+01:00
The hot favourite, the veteran, the outsider and the 'token man': here are the candidates in the December 5th election for the two empty seats in the Swiss government.

On December 5th, the Swiss parliament is set to vote in two new members of the Federal Council, the seven-member cabinet that makes up the Swiss government. 

The elections come after two of the country’s federal councillors – current Environment Minister Doris Leuthard and Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann – announced they would be stepping down at the end of this year.

Read also: This is how Switzerland elects a new federal councillor

But in a peculiarity of Swiss politics, Leuthard, of the Christian Democrat (CVP) party, and Schneider-Ammann of the Liberals (FDP), will – with 99-percent certainty – be replaced by members of their own party.

That’s because the Swiss Federal Council traditionally includes representatives of all of Switzerland’s largest four parties: the centrist CVP and FDP parties, the left-wing Socialists (SP) and the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP). 

This means when federal councillors resign they are almost always replaced by someone from the same party.

But that doesn't mean there's no intrigue. Over the last few weeks, hopeful candidates within the CVP and FDP have been jockeying to win their party’s nomination for a chance to take a coveted seat in the government

Now, though, the parties have nominated who they want to enter the fray. The CVP has selected two women in Viola Amherd and Heidi Z’graggen while the FDP has put forward Karin Keller-Sutter and Hans Wicki as its candidates.

This means the two FDP candidates will actually be competing against each other to get more votes from the right-leaning Swiss parliament while the same is true for the two CVP candidates.

Here a who's who of the four competitors.

The hot favourite - Karin Keller-Sutter (FDP)

Karin Keller-Sutter in 2017. Photo: Swiss Parliament

If any of the four candidates are a near shoo-in in the upcoming Federal Council elections, it is Karin Keller-Sutter of the FDP.

The 54-year-old – a qualified translator and conference interpreter who speaks perfect French – is being described in the Swiss media as the “heir to the throne”.

A well-known quantity, Keller-Sutter is from the canton of St Gallen in eastern Switzerland. With this region currently not represented in the Federal Council, her origins are a definite plus given the government should reflect the country's various regions and language groups.

The fact she is a woman is also a bonus. There is a growing consensus in Switzerland that there should be at least three female federal councillors at all times.

Read also: 14 fascinating facts about women's rights in Switzerland

Keller-Sutter made a name for herself during her time as justice director in the cantonal government of St Gallen where she had a reputation for her tough stance on crime and immigration. She has expressed an admiration for former Conservative UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher – one of two passions she picked up while a student in London at the age of 19. The other was punk music, which she reportedly still likes listening to.

In 2010, Keller-Sutter made a failed bid for the Federal Council: she was defeated by current Economy Minister Schneider Amann. In 2011, she was elected as a senator for the canton of St Gallen in the upper house of the Swiss parliament, the Council of States.

Little is known about Keller-Sutter’s private life. Her parents ran a restaurant in the town of Wil for decades. She is married and has a dog called Picasso. She has also spoken openly about how she wished to have children but suffered two miscarriages in a year.

On the professional level, Keller-Sutter is said to earn some 180,000 Swiss francs (€160,000) a year as a member of the Board of the Directors of the Baloise Insurance Group, according to an analysis by state broadcaster RTS. She is also said to hold shares in the group valued at 365,000 Swiss francs. Like the other Federal Council candidates in this race, however, Keller-Sutter has not divulged her earnings.

The candidate from St Gallen also holds positions on the board of directors of pension funds and is president of the powerful Swiss Retail Federation.

There have been concerns that Keller-Sutter’s shift leftwards since entering national politics may hurt her chances when it comes to winning parliamentary hearts, minds (and votes).

But on Tuesday, the SVP endorsed her over her competitor Hans Wicki after the first of a series of hearings before individual parties in the Swiss parliament in the run-up to December 5th election. Expect to see more of Keller-Sutter soon.

The token man - Hans Wicki (FDP)

FDP candidate for the Federal Council Hans Wicki. Photo: Swiss Parliament

Fifty-four-year-old economist Hans Wicki has spent much of the last few weeks trying to get out of the shadow of his fellow FDP candidate for the Federal Council.

The experienced politician from the small central Swiss canton of Nidwalden has also been desperately trying to shake off the sensation among observers that he is the “fall guy” for the FDP – the second candidate they had to have to ensure there was a least a semblance of choice beyond Keller-Sutter.

In theory, Wicki is the business candidate. Unlike his competitor, he has commercial management experience. Before entering cantonal politics, he ran five businesses within the Pfisterer group and oversaw 500 staff in Switzerland and South Africa.

A father of two and a member of the Swiss parliament’s golf team, Wicki’s regional background is an advantage as he would be the first federal councillor from Nidwalden.

He also has the sort of business-friendly, EU-sceptic politics that might win him votes in the parliament. But Wicki started this campaign very much on the back foot and has done himself no favours with his poor language skills. His unwillingness to speak in French has not gone unnoticed, and is another indication of just how far ahead Keller-Sutter is ahead of him.

Last but not least, as the only man in the current race, he is at a distinct disadvantage.

Outside of politics, the broadcaster RTS reported Wicki earns 116,000 francs a year as head of the board of directors for Engelberg-Trübsee-Titlis cableways. He also runs a counselling firm with his wife who provides motivational coaching.

The seasoned veteran - Viola Amherd (CVP)

Viola Amherd is Vice President of the Christian Democrats (CVP). Photo: Swiss Parliament

While all of the candidates have years of political experience behind them, Viola Amherd of the CVP is the best-connected in the Swiss parliament in Bern.

The 56-year-old lawyer and notary who enjoys hiking, skiing and cycling has been an MP for the CVP since 2005 and is currently the party’s vice president.

She is a member of the board of directors of a number of transport and medical enterprises.

She also represents the left-wing of the CVP and is the furthest left of all the four candidates in the running for the Federal Council (she wrote her high school dissertation on anarchy).

Describing herself a “bridge builder”, she is relatively open to Switzerland welcoming refugees from crisis zones and to gay adoption, for example. This is a plus when it comes to scoring votes from the left side of the political divide in parliament.

On the other hand, she is appears to be too left for the SVP. She has also been confronted with a number of scandals in recent times over issues including an unpaid honorarium to young notaries in the canton of Valais, although there is no evidence of impropriety.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Amherd seems to be the clear favourite for the CVP in terms of the new Federal Council, but the arrival of Heidi Z’graggen (see below) could just throw a spanner in the works.

The outsider - Heidi Z'graggen (CVP)

Heidi Z’graggen. Photo: CVP Schweiz

Heidi Z’graggen was a surprise addition to the CVP ticket for the Federal Council. The baby of the bunch at 52 years of age, she was virtually unknown in Bern – outside of her own party at least – when her nomination was announced recently.

A qualified primary school teacher who holds a doctorate in political science, Z’graggen has been a member of the cantonal government in Uri for the last 14 years and is currently cantonal justice director.

Z’graggen’s background in central Switzerland is in her favour as is the fact that she represents the right-wing of the CVP, unlike her competitor Amherd who will most likely struggle to win votes from the FDP and the right-wing SVP.  

This self-professed nature lover is a Eurosceptic. She also believes the conditions are not right for Switzerland to sign the new United Nations global compact for migration.

Z’graggen is also in a relationship with a politician from the SVP, although the verdict is out on whether that will help or hinder her chances in terms of winning votes in the parliament.

But Z’graggen – who is currently camped out in a hotel in Bern and busy trying to raise her profile among Swiss parliamentarians – says she doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as either left- or right-wing. This could be a wise move as she attempts to win votes for her candidacy across the political spectrum.

The SVP on Tuesday backed Z’graggen over Amherd after hearing from the two women. But the party’s endorsement of her in terms of how its parliamentary members should vote for on December 5th was hardly overwhelming. One insider told the Zurich daily Tages Anzeiger Z'graggen wasn’t a “clear enough right-wing alternative” to Amherd.

Z’graggen, for example, has strong green credentials as the head of the Swiss federal heritage and environment commission. She has also come out in support of gay marriage.

But with plenty of uncertainty remaining about her political positions, Z’graggen may find she has too much catching up to do.

Read also: Ten things you need to know about the Swiss political system

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