· Published in Know your Billionaires!

Know your billionaires !

Christoph Blocher, the Swiss mogul of right-wing populism

Over the last few decades, Christoph Blocher has become a central figure in Swiss politics. Almost no one has shaped the country as much as the billionaire from Zurich’s Gold Coast. Over just a few years, he has made the far-right national Swiss People’s Party (SVP) the dominant political force in the country, using his magnificent Herrliberg villa as a backdrop for grandiloquent events.

The 78-year-old – who was already a wealthy industri The 78-year-old – who was already a wealthy industrialist when he became a politician – used the money from his company EMS-Chemie to lead his party to success. Like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Blocher has created an economic empire that also serves to finance his political party. He managed to build up a personal net worth of around 2 billion euros (2 to 3 billion CHF) using a simple strategy, which consisted of dismantling companies, like the aluminium manufacturer Alusuisse, and orchestrating calculated surprise attacks. There are three distinct phases to Blocher’s career: He began as a businessman, then went into politics, and eventually became a press mogul. And when that was achieved, he used the media outlets that either he or his family/friends had acquired to shift the public discourse as far right as possible. Blocher’s biography is a perfect illustration of the decisive role played by big money on the Swiss political landscape.

Blocher’s path to the top began at the end of the seventies. Blocher, the son of a Protestant minister and the seventh of eleven brothers and sisters, studied law, expressing fierce opposition to the 1968 student protests. His meteoric career began with a part-time position in the legal department of the company EMS-Chemie. Two years later he was already named Secretary General, and by the early eighties he owned the majority of the company’s shares. Towards the end of the Second World War, the chemist Werner Oswald founded his company in Donat – and began distilling alcohol from wood waste. Before Blocher took over, the company, which sold high-performance polymers and specialty chemicals, was in financial strife due to the 1973-75 global recession. There are numerous rumours as to how Blocher took over the family-owned company, EMS-Chemie. According to Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, after Werner Oswald’s death, Blocher, as the new manager, advised the Oswald family to sell the company. He immediately took over negotiations himself – and promptly presented a mysterious buyer who promised to honour the owners’ key condition: that there would be no job cuts. After a long negotiating period, the family finally sold the company to the wealthy stranger for a then cheap twenty million Swiss francs. The mysterious stranger turned out to be Christoph Blocher himself. For twenty years, the industrious industrialist remained at the head of the group, with an approach that involved heavy speculation on stock markets.

EMS-Chemie resembled less a factory than “a kind of investment fund”, as the liberal newspaper NZZ described it in the late eighties. Blocher’s second career, in politics, reached its heights when he was elected to the SVP state government in late 2003. He subsequently sold the company shares to his four children and his eldest daughter, Magdalena Martullo-Blocher, took over as CEO of EMS-Chemie.

Swiss magazine Bilanz estimates the Blocher family’s assets at 9-10 billion euros (10-11 billion CHF) in 2018, making it one of Switzerland’s top ten richest families. What is striking is that Blocher has always managed both the company and the party like a tightly-run family business, with succession an internal matter. Not only did Magdalena Martullo-Blocher take over as CEO; the 50-year-old has also been a member of parliament for the SVP since 2015. She was elected vice-president of SVP after Bocher’s resignation in 2016. Even before the family took over, Blocher began rebuilding the party to his liking. In 1977, he was elected president of the Zurich SVP. He did a complete organisational overhaul, relying on a tight hierarchy and few confidants. The SVP had never been so successful. Blocher was elected to the National Council (the lower house of the Swiss Parliament) from 1979 to 2003. With Blocher’s wealth and the millions in cash injections from other patrons – including car importer Walter Frey and private banker Thomas Matter – the financial clout increased considerably. And with it, the party’s political sway. Brandishing the slogan “Back Blocher! Vote SVP”, the right-wing populists triumphed in the 2007 elections. The direction taken by Blocher’s SVP was quickly sketched out. Despite a brutally neo-liberal economic policy that would benefit corporations and millionaires, the party sold itself as “the party of the people”. Its racist stance against refugees and other minorities has created a hostile climate in the country. Other European parties such as the National Rally in France, the AfD in Germany and the Flaams Belang in Belgium have reproduced its policies.

In 2007, something almost completely unexpected happened: Blocher lost the election to the federal council to his party colleague Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who ran against the SVP. Blocher had announced that he would enter the media world if he was voted out of office. When this happened, he embarked upon his third career and vowed to turn the Swiss media landscape upside down. Blocher’s political protege,
Roger Köppel, had already acquired Weltwoche in 2006, backed by right-wing conservative financiers such as Ticino-based investor Titto Tettamanti. In late 2014, Blocher acquired shares in Basler Zeitung, and then sold them, acquiring the free newspaper empire Zehnder. Although Christoph Blocher may have officially retired from politics, he has always played a prominent supporting role. The media have always focussed on the rise of the SVP, with a very Blocher-focussed approach, but now the party is free to plaster its agenda all over the front page and use its own media to run political campaigns. He may be in the background, but Blocher continues to pull the strings. A film entitled The Election Campaign (Der Wahlkampf) has been released by the SVP a few weeks before the Swiss parliamentary elections of October 2019. The film aimed to encourage young people to vote. Once again Christoph Blocher has landed the leading role.

Anna Jikhareva

Christoph Blocher
Net worth : Swiss magazine Bilanz estimates Blocher family assets at 9-10 billion euros (10-11 billion CHF) in 2018.
= more than 155,000 years of the average salary in Switzerland
Country : Switzerland
Sectors : Chemicals, Media, Food
Companies : EMS-Chemie (CEO: daughter Magdalena Martullo-Blocher), Läckerli Huus (CEO: daughter Miriam Baumann-Blocher), Zehnder Regionalmedien (Christoph Blocher)
Political party : SVP (Swiss People’s Party)
Article published as part of our investigation: «Know your Billionaires!»
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