Swiss women claim Cabinet majority, less than 4 decades after winning right to vote

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Swiss women claim majority of seats in Cabinet

GENEVA — Swiss women for the first time captured most of the seats in the country’s seven-member executive branch Wednesday, brushing aside Switzerland’s history as one of Europe’s last nations to grant women full suffrage.

The tilt in the balance of power came as parliament in Bern voted Social Democrat lawmaker Simonetta Sommaruga into the Cabinet.

“We’ve reached the goal after a centurylong struggle,” said Ruth Dreifuss, a former Swiss Cabinet member who in 1999 served as the country’s first female president.

Unlike most countries headed by presidents or prime ministers, Switzerland is largely governed by seven politicians from different parties who comprise the Federal Council. Major decisions are made by consensus, and the presidency rotates on a yearly basis among the ministers.

Switzerland’s popularly elected parliament took four rounds of voting to elect Sommaruga to fill the position vacated by Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger. Free Democrat lawmaker Johann Schneider-Ammann also won a seat in a special election called after Leuenberger and Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz announced their retirements.

The Cabinet already had three women and two men representing five parties.

“We’ve shown that women fight together, instead of against one another,” Sommaruga said.

The four-three majority makes Switzerland only the fifth country in the world to have more women than men in its Cabinet, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The others are Cape Verde, Finland, Norway and Spain.

For Swiss women, the vote culminates a slow path to gender equality in politics — even if advocates here say women still lag in business and academia.

Swiss women didn’t get the right to vote or run in national elections until 1971 and the first Swiss woman wasn’t elected to the Cabinet until 1984.

But now both houses of parliament are presided over by women, and Economics Minister Doris Leuthard holds the country’s rotating presidency until the end of the year.

The slow change partly reflects Switzerland’s unique system of direct democracy. Women could only gain full suffrage through a national referendum of men, who passed the measure for all nationwide votes 39 years ago. Yet in one Swiss canton — Appenzell Inner-Rhodes — men continued to bar women from local elections until 1990.

Some of that resistance remains. The male Swiss organizer of what is being promoted as a first global antifeminism meeting in October expressed concern about having so many women in government.

“We all know that when lots of women work together there can be more problems,” said Rene Kuhn.

Claudine Esseiva — a member of the pro-business Free Democrats who strongly supported a fifth woman for the Cabinet, her defeated party colleague Karin Keller-Sutter — said the battle for gender parity isn’t over.

The executive branch’s composition could change again next year, when all seven posts are up for re-election. The Swiss people will first vote on a new parliament and that body then chooses the Cabinet, so having a majority of women again is hardly a sure thing.

“It may only last for one year,” Esseiva said.

will not be displayed