ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland’s parliament gave women a majority in the federal cabinet for the first time on Wednesday, less than 40 years after Swiss women gained the right to vote.
Parliament chose 50-year-old consumer advocate and Social Democrat Simonetta Sommaruga for one of two vacant seats on the Federal Council, which is made up of representatives of the biggest parties in Switzerland’s consensus-based government.
Sommaruga becomes the fourth female member of the seven-strong cabinet.
Swiss women gained the federal right to vote only in 1971, long after many other democracies. They now also hold the largely ceremonial presidency, which rotates between cabinet members, and the positions of speakers of both houses of parliament.
Parliament also elected 58-year-old male business leader and critic of high bank bonuses Johann Schneider-Ammann from the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) to the council on Wednesday.
Two seats became vacant this summer when Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz from the FDP and Infrastructure Minister Moritz Leuenberger from the Social Democrats resigned ahead of parliamentary elections next year.
Switzerland’s biggest parties are given cabinet places according to an informal formula loosely based on how many parliamentary seats they win.
The federal government’s powers are limited due to Switzerland’s strong federalism and the fact that citizens can challenge laws and decisions via referendum.
The ministers distribute portfolios among themselves, take decisions by consensus and usually don’t reveal dissenting views.
A major reshuffle of ministries is seen as unlikely before the 2011 elections and the FDP has already signaled it wants to keep the finance ministry, making Schneider-Ammann the likely next finance minister.
Schneider-Ammann, who heads manufacturer Ammann Group, is seen as a traditional Swiss company patriarch who cares about his employees and not only about profits.
During the financial crisis he strongly criticized bankers for their large bonuses and called on former UBS top managers to repay their bonuses when the government had to bailout the country’s largest bank.
The finance ministry will lead the lawmaking process toward tougher bank regulation and is also in charge of negotiating new double taxation agreements with countries such as Germany. These are crucial for Swiss banks, which have come under pressure during the global hunt for tax evaders.
The infrastructure portfolio, likely to be taken on by the popular Sommaruga, is like finance seen as one of the more senior ministerial posts as it carries more clout in country-wide issues than other ministries.
Sommaruga, a professional pianist, has been a member of parliament since 1999 and joined the upper house representing the canton of Bern in 2003.
Additional reporting by Silke Koltrowitz, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall/David Stamp