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Switzerland rocked by parliament's rejection of woman as leader

Dull is usually the word for Switzerland's enviably stable politics - but not this year. A woman is at the center of what could become the country's first government crisis in a quarter of a century.

Last month a conservative and male-dominated federal parliament rejected Lilian Uchtenhagen, the Social Democratic Party's candidate for the coalition seven-member federal council that governs Switzerland. She would have been the first female councilor.

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A doctor of economics, Mrs. Uchtenhagen has been in parliament since women received the right to vote in 1971. In the weeks before the election she faced a barrage of chauvinist criticism that illustrated how hard it is for women to reach the top in Swiss politics.

Mrs. Uchtenhagen - board president of a major Zurich retail chain, economics teacher, and mother of three adopted children - was accused of being ''too emotional,'' ''unable to stand the strain of high office,'' ''too sharp-tempered ,'' ''too intellectual,'' and even not enough of a ''mother figure.''

Her conservative, male opponents worked feverishly to force Mrs. Uchtenhagen out of the race. On the night before the vote was to be taken, they settled on a colorless Social Democrat who did not have the support of his party. A poll had shown that 67 percent of the Swiss people wanted a woman to be elected.

A bewildered Mrs. Uchtenhagen protested: ''I am described as either an iron lady or an emotional heap. I am supposed to be ambitious, cold, hard, ruthless, and a crybaby at the same time. It doesn't make sense.''

Across Switzerland, some 50,000 Social Democrats are debating whether they should leave the coalition government. Known as the ''magic formula,'' the coalition has guaranteed political continuity since 1959.

The party, Switzerland's second-largest, is to decide at an extraordinary congress in Bern next month. If it leaves, the political consensus would be broken.

In the Swiss government recipe, representatives from the country's four leading parties reach collective decisions. They must stand up for them in public regardless of party policy. There are no stars. A different councilor is president each year.

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Party president Helmut Hubacher is determined to lead his party out of the coalition. ''A party has its dignity and its honor,'' he says.

He is supported by a large bloc of the party leadership, younger members, environmentalists, antinuclear groups, women, intellectuals. The failure to elect Mrs. Uchtenhagen was only the final straw. Many Social Democrats say they would get much more through if they became an opposition party.

With the numbers stacked against them in the federal government (five councilors represent conservative parties, two are Social Democrats), they see themselves rubber-stamping others' views. And with recent economic problems, the gulf between Social Democrats and conservatives has widened.

Mrs. Uchtenhagen refuses to say where she stands on the magic formula. But she admits that something will have to be done to reach women and other groups who feel left out.

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