Swiss President Calls For Calm After Pre-Election Violence In Capital

Swiss president calls for calm after pre-election violence in capital

The Associated Press
Published: October 7, 2007

BERN, Switzerland: The Swiss president on Sunday condemned the violence that erupted a day earlier when extreme-left groups halted a nationalist party's election rally.

Up to 500 masked protesters blocked a 10,000-strong march through Bern by People's Party supporters hoping to hear party figures speak two weeks before national elections.

The protesters also destroyed campaign stalls and equipment set up for the rally outside Parliament.

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, who they said used “guerrilla tactics” to disrupt the event. Eighteen officers and three protesters were injured, and 42 people were arrested, police said.

“I'm saddened by the images of violence,” Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey said in an interview with weekly Sonntags Blick, adding that extremists must not be allowed to prevent people from exercising their right to free speech.

The People's Party has been criticized in recent months for its hard-line stance on immigration.

Police said about 100 neo-Nazis had joined the People's Party march, which had to be diverted to another location on the outskirts of Bern Switzerland's medieval capital.

“A few hundred extremists can't endanger our democracy,” Calmy-Rey said in the interview, appealing to all sides to stop playing on voters' fears in order to gain political advantage for the Oct. 21 polls.

The violence raised concerns about the increasingly harsh tone of political debates in the normally peaceful Alpine republic.

Opponents of the People's Party have accused it and leading members such as Christoph Blocher who holds the portfolio of justice minister in the seven-seat government of deliberately stoking tensions with provocative statements and policies.

The party recently launched a campaign to deport criminal foreigners, illustrating its point with posters showing white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag.

Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin, a member of the center-right Radical Democrats, said he warned his colleague Blocher about the risk of violence at Saturday's rally, as left-wing groups had called for demonstrations against the event.

Recent surveys have suggested the People's Party would get 26 percent of the vote, putting it four points ahead of its closest rival, Calmy-Rey's Social Democrats.

A separate “Festival against Racism” in Bern on Saturday was attended by up to 3,000 people and was peaceful.