America is experiencing late-stage capitalism

Mitte President Pfister: "The economic order of this country must change"

Gerhard Pfister is the figurehead of the center party. In an interview with the NZZ, he explains why the FDP is overrepresented in the Federal Council and why a new capitalism is needed after Corona - a "third way"

The marriage is complete, but moving together is still a long way off. This is how you could describe the situation in the middle, the new party merged from the large CVP and the small BDP. The first joint party conference is to take place sometime in the summer, if the pandemic allows. Gerhard Pfister, the strong man of the CVP, is now also the strong man in the middle. We meet the Zug National Council in the party headquarters on Berner Hirschengraben, the former headquarters of the CVP. But no election poster and no orange flag are reminiscent of it - tabula rasa.

Mr. Pfister, on the way to you, we knew what your correct official title was.

Since the expiry of the objection period on January 15th: Pfister, Gerhard, President Die Mitte Schweiz.

So you want to continue to be president of the new party?

If the CVP delegates had spoken out against the merger and the name change in November, then I would have had to think carefully about whether I was the right person for the office. After the clear decision, I am happy to compete.

Running is good! They are chosen by acclamation anyway.

The queue was manageable when I became CVP President in 2016. The fact that it is now about the leadership of a new party does not make the job more attractive, nor does it make it more conducive to future careers in the Federal Council. But I do not expect 100% approval.

What does the middle actually stand for?

The middle is our position. The name implies a claim to exclusivity: We are the ones who actually represent the middle of society! We are not a polar party, we advocate freedom and solidarity and take responsibility for Switzerland's democratic institutions. We are a party that supports the state.

The CVP was a proud Conservative party. Doesn't this repositioning arise any melancholy?

Not at all. Because we still see our task in securing the cohesion of Switzerland. The middle emphasizes what connects society. This has a strong connection to the conservative history of the CVP.

In what way?

The CVP has always distinguished itself as an integrative force. Probably no other party in Switzerland represented a broader social spectrum. The FDP was aimed at entrepreneurs, the SP at the workers, the SVP at the peasants. In the CVP, entrepreneurs, employees and farmers have always sat at the same table. This socially binding mission is also the new challenge. Our original raison d'être of the CVP - the integration of Catholics into the liberal federal state - was long out of date. We are trying to reformulate this historical task.

For decades, the C was a strict bracket for a very heterogeneous party. What holds the middle together?

Unfortunately, the C has also become a bracket of exclusivity that we struggled with. The C was increasingly perceived as an obstacle by potential new voters. The center must therefore open up. I am aware that this can quickly lead to accusations of lack of profile. We must take this risk seriously and counter it with concrete policies.

Again, the C was the party's anchor. Such is now missing.

The CVP always had a tendency to interpret a lot into the party name. The interpretations of the C - from the ellipse to the sky anchor - fill books. We literally worked our way through it over the years, without much that could be counted. We have to be careful now that we don't spend the next few decades grappling with all sorts of shades of the new name. Success does not depend on the name.

The two strongest Swiss parties, the SVP and the SP, are polar parties. Is voter growth from a position in the middle even realistic?

Twenty years ago, the need for a strong political center for Switzerland was not yet recognized. But today more and more people see what happens when a society loses its center. The situation in the USA is evident for this. Ultimately, the party name is an honest expression of our politics. We position ourselves in the middle of the political process. We stand for balance.

In hardly any other country is there so much talk of equalization as in Switzerland.

Rightly. A polarized society is a divided society. Many people are aware of this. The concept of cohesion, which is shaped by cooperatives, has contributed a great deal to Switzerland's successful model.

What do you mean?

Switzerland is an incredibly successful balancing machine. From SRG fees to cantonal financial equalization. A German politician once said to me that if Germany were to provide the same solidarity services that flow between the cantons in Switzerland, then you would end up with sums that you could no longer imagine. Precisely because Switzerland is a nation of will and there is enormous diversity in a small area, these compensations are something very important. And it is precisely this that is the task of the center to maintain and develop further.

Three years ago you tried to start a kind of Christian-conservative value debate for Switzerland, which failed. Today you are the undisputed future president of a liberal-social center party. You are also considered the winner of the last national elections, even though you just didn't lose. How did you do that?

Your question contains some rhetorical injustices. I deny that the value debate failed. The question of what actually defines our society may be explosive. But I have always believed that we should take a clear position on this. I wonder if this position was offensive simply because it came from a conservative like me. I've always struggled with stereotypes. Maybe I provoked that too. Although I actually said nothing else than that the rule of law has Christian roots and that one can say it that way.

The left wing of the CVP was appalled. There were even party departures.

Much of what I said at the time was immediately considered to be SVP-related. Part of the base watched me with suspicion. But I knew that a good president needs the trust of the whole community.

By the 2019 elections at the latest, confidence was back. Though you were lucky the CVP didn't drop below the 10 percent mark.

I am thoroughly self-critical. But if I think I can do something, it's an election campaign. And the effort has paid off. There was a standing ovation from the delegates, even though we lost 0.2 percent. The lovable thing about my party is its pragmatism. We come from a milieu that is getting smaller and smaller. The historical experience of defeat is anything but alien to us. We're happy if we don't lose too much. But nothing is more successful than success. And after the merger and the name change, I am convinced that if we work hard for it, we will grow in 2023.

This is how we interpret your miraculous change. As a shrewd power technician, you simply realized that the CVP would lose its seat in the Federal Council in the medium term without fundamental reform.

The NZZ once wrote that Pfister didn't do that badly: first turn the right blink to reassure the conservatives, then turn left to maintain power and reform the party. But that's not how it works. I did not start the debate on values ​​for strategic reasons. Even then, the focus was on the question of where do we position ourselves? For a long time, this question was alien to the CVP.


Historically, this question was never necessary. We could rely on the milieu that always chose us. The CVP didn't really have to prove itself in the market of ideas. It was the last party to go through the transition from a milieu to a party of values. This has a lot to do with the fact that we didn't have a natural ideological opponent. In its traditional form, the SVP was the reformed counterpart to the CVP. Then Christoph Blocher formed a national-conservative movement out of it - and won voters in our home countries.

It is an irony of history that the good Catholics of Central Switzerland chased a Reformed pastor's son.

This bon mot goes back to my party friend Carlo Schmid. Incidentally, he was the first to question the C to me in 2004. Even then, he was convinced that we had to break away from the C. At first I hesitated. But it would be an illusion to believe that this would bring voters back from the SVP. It cannot be our goal to become so right-wing revolutionary. Those who left us in the 1990s did it mainly because of European politics. Some also because of our position on the deadline solution.

How important is it to secure the Federal Council seat?

A Federal Council seat is absolutely crucial in the Swiss political system. Of course, even as an opposition or one-topic party, you don't necessarily have to live badly. But for us it is a question of survival - also because we see ourselves as a ruling party. The BDP has seen what happens when a party loses this status. It's like a glacier in its final stages: the decline may be slow, but once it has reached a critical size, it suddenly happens very quickly.

You recently did the math for the “Tages-Anzeiger”: “A third seat for the left is too much, four seats for the right are too.”

The purpose of the magic formula is to integrate the relevant political forces into the Federal Council. When it was introduced in 1959, 80 percent of the electorate was represented. Today the rate is lower than ever since. We have a similar problem in the Federal Council as in 2003 when it became clear that the CVP had to give up a seat to the SVP. That sounds plausible, but it poses major challenges for the parties.

For example?

How do we feel about continuity? Federal councilors who run again are usually confirmed. The exceptions were Ruth Metzler and Christoph Blocher. Both voting maneuvers did not do well for Switzerland.

Now the second FDP seat is shaking because of the green wave.

Elections also have consequences in Switzerland. Admittedly not as immediate as in other countries, where governments are about to be exchanged. But they must have consequences. From a purely mathematical point of view, there is a disparity today. The FDP is currently overrepresented.

Who is entitled to the seat? Your own center party, the Green Liberals or even the Greens, who ban the sale of gasoline cars and want to enforce a night flight ban of eight hours?

Even if I could answer that question, I wouldn't.

As a clever strategist, you will probably have an idea.

I have them. But sometimes part of a good strategy is not to express it. Just this much: The fact that the Greens advocate a restrictive climate policy must not play a role. In our concordance system, it is not a specific position that determines whether a party is entitled to a seat in the Federal Council or not. In a concordance system, the majority relationships must be mapped.

What effect will Corona have on the Swiss political landscape?

First of all, party leaderships and the grassroots have to find each other again. The evening visits to the "Säli" of a pub have all dropped out. You can't have a party with Zoom and e-mails from Bern! You have to go to the people, shake hands, have a drink together - somewhere different every day. It's physical, believe me. But these personal contacts are incredibly important. For the setting of topics, for the mobilization. Nevertheless, I am convinced that in the course of Corona, the campaign work will experience another boost in digitization, especially in the social networks.

It feels like the parties were acting somewhere between inconspicuous and clumsy during the pandemic. Will that still play a role in the 2023 elections?

Regardless of the currently heated political debates, I am convinced that Corona is a game changer. We will judge many things differently in 2023.

For example?

The role of the state. The way we live together has changed and that will have political consequences. The deep civic spirit that emerged during the crisis is sensational. 90 percent of society support the corona measures, although many of them stink. They do not behave cooperatively out of lamb piety, but out of insight. The solidarity is huge.

And what does that mean for the role of the state in the future?

In our free market economy, the state has tried to keep the balance between freedom rights and massive interventions - including financial ones. He intervened, withdrew, intervened again, and will withdraw again. This is anything but a dictatorship, as Magdalena Martullo-Blocher and her SVP friends rumble. This irresponsible choice of words does enormous harm. For the first time in generations, we have had a crisis in Switzerland. Our relationship with the state is currently being readjusted.

Does that also apply to Parliament?

That's what I'm expecting. Last spring I was amazed how many parliamentarians did not want to accept the extraordinary nature of this pandemic. Parliament found it very difficult to surrender so much power to the executive. This was also reflected in personal behavior. To this day, some representatives of the people behave as if the rules of distance do not apply to them. As if political immunity also made it immune to the virus. Many believed that they could just continue as before Corona. Just get back to the committee meetings as quickly as possible! There was something irritating about that.

That shows that the representatives of the people take their task seriously. When parliament lost power last spring and transferred all responsibility to the Federal Council, the criticism was huge.

And now the situation has escalated. The relationship between the Federal Council and Parliament has been shattered as I've never seen it before. I am convinced that in a crisis like the one we are experiencing, we must strengthen the responsible Federal Council, not weaken it. My opponents accuse me of that. As the President of a Federal Council party, you are relatively close to the state government and therefore understand better what motives you had for this or that decision. But the main task of a parliamentarian is, of course, to ensure that the Federal Council fulfills its responsibilities appropriately.

You see yourself as a bourgeois politician because you don't want too much government and too much regulation. But now it is exactly in this direction. How is your new center positioned?

The middle must think further about capitalism and the social market economy. The economic order of this country, the economic order of this world must change. Corona will lead to a reassessment of globalization. The trend towards renationalization is obvious. The value of social security and supply sovereignty has become evident again.

Less freedom, more state?

It's too easy. The upheavals caused by the pandemic call for a further development of the social market economy. Maybe it even needs a new social contract. Switzerland has to rethink its paradigms in many areas, especially in the area of ​​social security. There is a big task there for the political center.

Why is a new social contract necessary for this?

It is worth thinking about the relationship between capitalism and democracy. 30 years ago we still believed in the West that capitalism brought democracy: change through trade. That has proven to be a fallacy. There are more and more states that combine undemocratic institutions with a capitalist economic order. The global political coordinate system with which I grew up - left and right, socialism versus capitalism - no longer works. It takes a third way.

That sounds like the feel-good capitalism that Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder once preached. Market economy with great redistribution.

For many people it is no longer so important whether the state does something or private. In times of need, they are more likely to trust the state, but also expect it not to permeate everything. For us older bourgeoisie still applies: as much freedom as possible, as much state as necessary. For the younger generation, the relationship between state and private is no longer the relevant question. It usually lives a pragmatism that corresponds to the basic idea of ​​the social market economy. Or maybe the term "further development of democratic capitalism" is more accurate. In any case, this will be an exciting challenge for liberalism.

That's quite an altitude.

You're right. You also asked me questions at this altitude. But it is clear to me that the concrete political work and communication must have a different flight altitude. In Switzerland, political success depends on whether you can implement your goals pragmatically. But Corona is a turning point.And as with all paradigm shifts, as long as you are in the middle of it you don't yet know which direction it will go. That was the case in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and in 2001 with 9/11. At both events it became clear to one in front of the television: The world is now going to be different. I also have this perception with Corona.