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Liechtenstein women stamp their feet for the vote

They have a fairy-tale castle that drew thousands of tourists last year; a prince, Franz Josef II, who is one of the world's longest reigning monarchs; an economy whose most visible products are colorful postage stamps and false teeth; and a per capita income of over $12,000 a year - ranking with Switzerland and Kuwait.

Still, the 27,000 inhabitants of this tiny European principality -- itself no bigger on a map than one of its postage stamps - are not completely happy.

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That, at least, is the impression they convey on the eve of the Feb. 5 election, held every four years. The campaign has touched a number of raw nerves , uncovering deep suspicions toward the Swiss (even though a 60-year-long customs union with Switzerland is at least partly responsible for Liechtenstein's wealth). It has also alienated feminists because Liechtenstein -- alone among Western countries - has not yet given women the vote.

On the surface, at least, the election campaign has been remarkably free from mudslinging. This is hardly surprising since the prime minister, Hans Brunhart, was once a pupil of his chief rival and opposition leader Hilmar Ospelt.

After the elections, and irrespective of the outcome, the two men will be working closely together -- the winner as prime minister, the loser as his deputy. Their offices will be situated near each other in the solid stone building under the lee of the castle that houses the government in its entirety, including the 15-member parliament, and the headquarters of Liechtenstein's 40 -man police force.

Philosophical differences no longer divide the main political parties, Mr. Brunhart's Fatherland Union Party and Mr. Ospelt's Progressive Citizen's Party.

Both are in full agreement about what underpins Liechtenstein's wealth: enticingly low income tax rates of under 20 percent which have attracted between 30,000 and 40,000 companies and are expected to yield over 60 million Swiss francs in reserves this year.

Underneath this surface impression of harmony and consensus, however, the last few weeks have seen one of the most heated election campaigns in memory.

In the first place, it has evoked frustration among half the adult population since women still cannot vote.

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''It's ridiculous'' said Evelyn Bermann, a 31-year-old graphic designer. ''Almost half the women here are working. We're as modern as women anywhere.''

Ms. Bermann and a group of friends have formed a feminist group named ''Sleeping Beauty,'' and they have whipped up a storm in discreet little Liechtenstein by handing out posters bearing a picture of an attractive woman asleep resembling the legend with the printed word ''awake.'' Men retaliated by distributing leaflets with a woman carrying a man's head on a plate.

Even though both the parties and Prince Franz Josef II strongly support the vote for women, the proposal was twice put to the all-male electorate, in 1971 and 1973, and rejected. Two months ago the cause received a further setback when Bermann's home town of Schaan, one of Liechtenstein's industrial centers, voted overwhelmingly to bar women from votes on local issues.

Although most are at a loss to explain the dogged opposition, the government's sole official spokesman, Walter Kranz, put it down to a fear of foreigners, since as he pointed out, 50 percent of Liechtenstein men have married foreign wives.

Some feel the same fear now threatens relations with Switzerland -- a small neighbor to much of West Europe, but very much a big brother to Liechtenstein ever since the principality unilaterally adopted the Swiss franc in 1923.

The number of Swiss in the country has risen to 4,300, helping to push the proportion of foreigners past one-third, and causing opposition leader Ospelt to issue dark warnings of being swamped.

One observer described this as doubly ironic -- first for the Swiss to find themselves treated with the same suspicion they adopt towards their own foreign workers. And second for Liechtenstein, since many of the Swiss are drawn by banking secrecy and low taxes -- lower even than they are in Switzerland.

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