Zurich government council elections 2021: SVP relies on the moderate

Finance director Ernst Stocker has not yet waived to run again. But his party is arming itself with possible successors. Despite internal criticism, Natalie Rickli is considered set.

In contrast to parliament, the government council meets unchanged in its meeting room in Zurich’s town hall (view from the cantonal council chamber).

Christian Beutler / Keystone

The scramble for the seven seats in the Zurich cantonal government has never started so early. The local elections in all municipalities and the major cities of Zurich and Winterthur are still to come. Nevertheless, new names for the election are already being actively traded in exactly 13 months.

One reason is the decision of the incumbent government council to schedule the renewal elections unusually early on February 12, 2023. So far, they have always taken place in March or April. The exit of security director Mario Fehr from the SP contributed to the hectic in the summer. Then the early decision by Economics Director Carmen Walker Späh to start again set the free-spirited candidate carousel in motion. The FDP, which wants to make up for its seat loss in 2019, meets its nomination at the beginning of February.

This in turn puts the SVP under pressure, which must reckon with a vacancy. Finance director Ernst Stocker has not yet made a public statement. But his resignation would not be a surprise after more than three terms in office; Stocker, who entered the government in 2010 after a replacement election, will be 68 at the end of the legislature. The SVP wants to determine its candidates on April 12th.

Natalie Rickli despite everything

Health Director Natalie Rickli.

Health Director Natalie Rickli.

NZZ

One hears around the party, the renewed nomination of Health Director Natalie Rickli is undisputed. Although her strict corona policy offended many SVP members and triggered some indignation among vaccination critics with clear statements. In this case, the pandemic has probably accelerated the incumbent’s emancipation from her party – and vice versa. Votes that Rickli loses within the SVP should easily be made up for beyond the party lines, where it has just gained popularity due to its stance on Corona.

The party seems to be able to handle the change from hardliner to magistrate to some extent. This was shown at the last delegates’ meeting in Winterthur at the end of October. The health director accepted the discussion, resolutely advocating a yes to the Covid 19 law, even though her situation was hopeless. She persuaded the party that rejecting the Zurich section would not be a constructive contribution, and still earned strong applause before the delegates passed the no slogan with a clear majority.

With Natalie Rickli, the SVP nominated a well-known member of the National Council for the last election. This is unlikely to repeat itself if Stocker withdraws. Last spring, the permanent search committee, headed by the former government councilor Rita Fuhrer, started talking to possible applicants.

National Councilor Gregor Rutz has the sharpest tone among them. But he apparently canceled internally. Rutz has previously answered the question of a Federal Council candidacy in the negative with reference to his communications agency. In addition, as the strongest party in 2023, the SVP is obliged to stand for the Council of States. Here some see the 49-year-old Rutz as a possible candidate, but possibly also the former party president and National Councilor Alfred Heer.

National Councilor Bruno Walliser was also asked. However, in the autumn he already declared his decision to renounce the Tamedia newspaper with reference to his family and his age of 57. As it currently stands, no member of the ten-strong Zurich SVP delegation will join the National Council. Since this also applies to the bourgeois rival FDP, the SVP expects a good chance of being able to defend its second seat in the government with a candidate from the cantonal council.

Farmer, teacher and politician

Martin Hübscher, President of the SVP parliamentary group in the Cantonal Council.

Martin Hübscher, President of the SVP parliamentary group in the Cantonal Council.

The focus is on 52-year-old Martin Hübscher, president of the SVP parliamentary group in the cantonal council since 2018. It is part of the ritual in this early phase before an election that those who are in the conversation first defend themselves, they are not looking for the office. In the case of Hübscher, however, this is meant honestly.

He and his wife run a farm on the border with Thurgau in a hamlet called Liebensberg. After the resignation of Hans-Ueli Vogt, replacing SVP President Benjamin Fischer, Hübscher is the first SVP replacement for the National Council. He would have a prospect of a seat in Bern in 2023.

But Hübscher also brings a lot to the government council. He’s not just a farmer and has the farmers’ association behind him. He is also a teacher at the agricultural competence center in Strickhof and, as the parliamentary group leader, knows the political industry very well. With his winning manner he reaches the people. Hübscher almost appears as a one-on-one replacement for Ernst Stocker, he just lacks experience in a political executive. One problem is that his children are still in education and could not take over the farm.

Exactly: he did not have the government council on the radar. He has not yet decided whether to apply, says Hübscher, and asked directly about it. But it is obvious that his party is trying to get him.

For outsiders, the only 38-year-old Tobias Weidmann from Hettlingen was approached as a surprise. He has been a member of the Cantonal Council since 2019 and is still little known. Insiders emphasize, however, that he is very active within the party and has made a name for himself with the merger of the district parties town and country in the Winterthur area. The graduate of the University of St. Gallen has set up a company for financial services and teaches at a technical college.

His company and the fact that Weidmann has four children between the ages of 1 and 9 and his wife teaches at a cantonal school speaks against a candidacy at the moment. He himself takes refuge in a double negative: He never said that he would not do it.

But Weidmann also speaks of one of the most exciting political offices. Mainly because – if Stocker renounces at all, as he emphasizes – the finance department would become free, his specialty. Weidmann lets it be known that he would not run if Hübscher would apply. The two belong to the same district party.

Cantonal councilor Marcel Suter from Thalwil is also under discussion. With him, the information varies as to whether he has brought himself into the conversation. The 48-year-old trustee and entrepreneur says he is in contact with the search committee. He has been a member of the Cantonal Council since 2017, where he is a member of the influential Economic Commission. Suter says that he is attracted to the office of government councilor, which is why he stands by his ambition. The Horgen district party has already proposed him.

Keeping the GLP in check

As far as can be seen, moderate SVP politicians, who are perhaps unknown with the exception of Martin Huebscher, are applying for a candidate for a government councilor. This is astonishing, because the Zurich SVP under Benjamin Fischer strikes harsh tones in the corona policy and hired a hawker as the new party secretary with the long-time Auns secretary Werner Gartenmann.

On the other hand, this follows the realization that hardliners in major elections, if they are not as well known as Natalie Rickli, have less chance of success. It helps if, for example, the farmer Hübscher doesn’t play down climate change. In any case, in the SVP, it is less the free-spirited people than the green liberals who are the main rivals in this election.

Of course, further applications from the parliamentary group are possible. Ueli Bamert, for example, but he comes from Zurich and the city party has a difficult position in the cantonal SVP. Christian Lucek (Dänikon) waves it away. He shot himself down four years ago in a completely unsuccessful attack against Rickli. At the time, he was interested in the election because the building department became vacant in 2019.

Applications from municipalities are also conceivable. The name Roger Bachmann is mentioned. The full-time mayor of Dietikon is up for re-election on February 13th. The SVP would have a problem with a move to the government council. If SVP had to replace Bachmann a year later, it is not certain whether they could defend the seat.

On the way to becoming a professional politician?

Benjamin Fischer, President of the Zurich SVP Cantonal Party.

Benjamin Fischer, President of the Zurich SVP Cantonal Party.

SVP President Benjamin Fischer would therefore have preferred the later election date. He personally is currently in a state of upheaval. On Monday he submitted his resignation to the cantonal council. Then he returned to the military, on duty for the Lauberhorn race. By the end of February, when he is sworn in as a member of the National Council, he wants to finish an important business as Commission President. At the end of March he will stand for election to the Volketswil municipal council.

Professionally, he is in the application phase, says Fischer. After the surprisingly early entry into the National Council, the initial situation changed. But he doesn’t want to be a professional politician. Isn’t there a risk that he will lose sight of cantonal politics because of all the obligations as SVP president?

The danger is there, replies Fischer, who took over the party chairmanship two years ago. But before his appointment he himself had expressed the opinion that the President of the Zurich SVP must belong to the National Council. The combination with a municipal office makes sense, that is what Albert Rösti did as President of SVP Switzerland. Incidentally, he could rely on a good team in the party leadership.

Local elections are not only a test for Fischer in Volketswil. Four years ago they ended in a debacle for the SVP. It lost numerous seats in the executive and parliaments not only in Zurich and Winterthur, but also in smaller cities. Your cantonal party is also measured by this.

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