Swiss women poised for cabinet majority

Women were poised Tuesday to claim a majority of seats in Switzerland’s cabinet, less than four decades after the country became one of Europe’s last to grant women the right to vote in national elections.

Swiss Social Democrat lawmaker Simonetta Sommaruga talks to a collegue during a session of the upper chamber of the Swiss parliament

Swiss Social Democrat lawmaker Simonetta Sommaruga talks to a collegue during a session of the upper chamber of the Swiss parliament

GENEVA — Women were poised Tuesday to claim a majority of seats in Switzerland’s cabinet, less than four decades after the country became one of Europe’s last to grant women the right to vote in national elections.

A four-three split in favour of women would make Switzerland only the fifth country in the world to have a female majority in government.

“It’s wonderful,” said Anders B. Johnsson, secretary-general of Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, which compiles an annual list of female participation in politics around the world. “When it comes to the executive, most countries drag their feet.”

Switzerland’s strong tradition of grass-roots democracy has helped women rise rapidly through the political ranks since winning universal suffrage in 1971. Even national lawmakers work only part-time, making it easier for women to hold elected office.

“It’s definitely an advantage over countries where politics is a full-time profession,” said Claudine Esseiva, a member of the Swiss Free Democratic Party. But with women still holding less than a third of seats in parliament, the strong female representation at the top is partly a confluence of unusual circumstances, she said.

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.

“You get a bit of a wrong picture if you just look at the government,” said Esseiva, adding that eastern Switzerland is still a lot less friendly to women in politics than the French-speaking west. Appenzell Inner-Rhodes, a small canton (state) in the east, prevented women from voting in local elections until a supreme court decision in 1990.

Politics, others note, is also unrepresentative of women’s role in other parts of Swiss society.

“Women gained the vote very late in Switzerland, but they’ve achieved a relatively high representation in politics,” said Doris Aebi, a recruitment consultant in Zurich.

“It’s different in business, where Switzerland is still very much behind at the management level.”

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