MAENNEDORF, Switzerland (Reuters) - As a child growing up near the Swiss border with Germany in the early 1940s, Christoph Blocher remembers soldiers camping out in his family’s garden, ready to defend the neutral nation against a surprise attack from the Nazis.
The godfather of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has unnerved investors with plans to cut immigration and demote international law, says the experience instilled a fierce desire to shield Switzerland from external influences.
“That sort of experience makes quite an impression on a four or five-year-old boy, and it paints a distinct picture of Switzerland’s strengths,” Blocher told Reuters in his modest office building overlooking a train station in Maennedorf, a lakeside village outside Zurich.
Under the direction of the 74-year-old billionaire, who speaks in a local dialect he calls “farmer German”, the SVP has shaken up the cosy, consensual system which has governed the Alpine nation since the end of the second World War.
To his fans, Blocher is a heroic defender of traditional Swiss values who has grown a niche party of farmers and small businessmen into Switzerland’s most popular political party.
To his critics he is a divisive populist, who has brought instability to a once safe haven for companies and investors.
Yet the party won more than 26 percent of the vote in the last election, in 2011, and, according to polling firm Vimentis, is set to win more than 32 percent in the next one, in October.
In May, Blocher resigned from the parliament in Berne so he could spend more time furthering his policies through popular initiatives or referendums, a particular feature of Swiss politics.
Stopping “mass immigration” and what he sees as Switzlerand’s drift towards the European Union are at the top of his priority list. “If you’re marginalized in Berne, then you have to work with popular initiatives,” he said.
The SVP was the driving force behind a referendum last year which has forced the government to introduce new limits on immigration, threatening its ties to the European Union.
In a “Save our Swiss gold” referendum in November, the SVP tried and failed to force the Swiss National Bank (SNB) to buy vast quantities of the precious metal, despite warnings from the central bank that it would cripple its monetary policy.
Such polarizing moves have made it hard for the SVP to forge alliances in Berne, even though it is the largest party.
If it wins more than a third of the vote in the election, blocking Blocher will become harder, as it will strengthen the SVP claim to a second seat in the seven-seat ruling council.
The son of a pastor, Blocher was born in 1940 in a village on the Rhine river, the seventh of eleven children. He studied agriculture, and later law, later buying EMS Chemie EMSN.S, a maker of adhesives and coatings for the engineering and automotive industries. The company exports 90 percent of its products and nearly a third of its employees are non-Swiss.
Blocher says he fell into politics by chance following a local zoning dispute. He has courted controversy ever since, clashing with the polite, grey traditions of Swiss politics.
In 1999, he was sanctioned for insulting remarks about Jewish organizations in connection with restitution claims for Nazi-seized assets in Swiss banks.
On Friday, Swiss media said two high-ranking SVP officials face racial discrimination charges for a poster used in the anti-immigration campaign claiming “Kosovars slash open Swiss!”.
Blocher denies being a racist. He also says he does not wish to align with anti-immigrant, eurosceptic politicians like Nigel Farage in Britain or Marine Le Pen in France.
His top priority, he said, was to keep Switzerland, which lies in the middle of Europe but outside the European Union, independent and in control of its own fate.
Supporters of Blocher have likened him to Swiss folk hero William Tell, who bucked a powerful foreign overlord. He says the greatest threat to independence now comes from within, accusing lawmakers in Berne of secretly plotting to move Switzerland closer to the EU.
“The Swiss people don’t want to relinquish their independence but the politicians still want to surrender it, they’re just not saying it so openly,” he said.
With immigration at around 80,000 per year and the net figure double that in neighboring Germany, the party strikes a chord with Swiss who feel their identity is under threat, rattling the political elite.
Annemarie Huber-Hotz, a former government chancellor, wants to ban Swiss parties from launching popular initiatives. A parliamentary committee has proposed ways to raise the bar for referendums, including easier ways to kill them in parliament.
This has incensed Blocher, who says the SVP has only sought popular votes when lobbying efforts in parliament foundered. Meanwhile, he has looked for other ways to spread his influence.
In December, outraged journalists at the Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Switzerland’s oldest newspaper, threatened to walk out when it emerged that management was considering appointing a new editor with ties to Blocher.
Despite previous denials, it was revealed in 2011 that he had a stake in another newspaper, the BaslerZeitung, through his daughter Rahel. The left-leaning TagesAnzeiger newspaper responded by accusing him of having an “oligarch family: complete with castles, companies, factories and newspapers.”
Blocher shakes off the attacks. He says he will stay active in politics for as long as he feels up to it. Planned initiatives include limiting asylum seekers and ensuring Swiss law takes precedence over international or European law, which would, for example, block the appeals process by immigrants to Switzerland by overruling European courts.
“If papers and media could kill, I’d have been dead long time ago,” he said.
Editing by Noah Barkin and Philippa Fletcher