Elisabeth Kopp, Swiss Politician Who Made History, Dies at 86

Elisabeth Kopp, who in 1984 overcame accusations involving her husband to become the first woman elected to Switzerland’s governing Federal Council — but who could not overcome another scandal a few years later, also related to her husband, and resigned when she had seemed likely to be the country’s first female president — died on April 7 in Zumikon, southeast of Zurich. She was 86.

Her death was announced on April 14 by the federal chancellery, The Associated Press reported. The cause was not specified.

Mrs. Kopp had been mayor of Zumikon for a decade and had served two terms in Parliament when a retirement opened up a seat on the seven-member Federal Council, which runs the main government departments and whose members take turns serving a one-year term as the country’s president.

Mrs. Kopp was one of the more left-leaning members of the conservative Radical Democratic Party, known for her work on environmental issues as well as for advancing women’s causes, and polls showed her to be popular. But the effort to elevate her to the council prompted her political enemies to stir up dirt on her husband, Hans Kopp, a lawyer.

The attacks riled Mrs. Kopp’s supporters.

“Swiss feminists and liberal politicians have reacted with indignation to press reports that the husband of Switzerland’s first woman candidate for the country’s highest political office was suspended from legal practice for six months in 1972 after charges that he spanked secretaries in his firm,” The Guardian reported in 1984.

“In 1971,” the newspaper continued, “a lawyer in Mr. Kopp’s firm said that Mr. Kopp had punished misdemeanors in the office by wielding a bamboo cane on bare bottoms.”

His right to practice law was suspended for six months by a Zurich lawyers watchdog commission. But the mudslinging backfired: In early October 1984, Mrs. Kopp won election to the council anyway, with Parliament voting 124 to 95 to select her over a male candidate, Bruno Hunziker. Commentators at the time said that the attempts to undermine Mrs. Kopp’s candidacy probably only strengthened it.

Her election was an important moment in the push for women’s equality in Switzerland, a country that had lagged behind most of Europe in that area; women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections there until 1971.

Mrs. Kopp was the first woman to serve in the seven-member cabinet. She told The A.P. at the time that her election was a sign that “equality of the sexes is taken seriously now.”

But, she said, being a woman in the largely male universe of politics — only about a tenth of the members of Parliament were women at the time — meant extra challenges.

“In politics, women must do better than men if they want to succeed,” she said.

Each council member heads a federal department, and during her tenure Mrs. Kopp’s titles included justice minister and interior minister. In 1988, it was her turn to rotate into the vice presidency, and she was duly elected by Parliament late that year. But she never took the post, because of another scandal related to her husband.

Reports came to light that Mrs. Kopp, who was minister of justice at the time, had recently tipped off her husband that a company he was involved with was the focus of a money-laundering investigation and urged him to cut his ties, which he did. She at first denied any impropriety — “I wouldn’t like one to think that I could have committed or tolerated wrongdoing,” she said at the time — but she resigned from the council because of what she called “unbearable pressure.”

She eventually acknowledged providing information to her husband, and in 1989 she was indicted on charges of violating official secrecy laws. During her trial in February 1990, admirers applauded her as she left the courthouse each day. A Supreme Court jury acquitted her. Had she not resigned, she would have become president that same year.

Elisabeth Ikle was born on Dec. 16, 1936, in Zurich to Max and Beatrix Ikle. Her father was a director general of the Swiss National Bank, and her mother helped establish a nursery school.

Mrs. Kopp was a skilled figure skater in her youth. She studied law at Zurich University and graduated with honors. She met Mr. Kopp while doing volunteer work on behalf of Hungarians who fled to Switzerland in 1956 after the Soviet Union crushed a popular uprising in Hungary.

As interior minister, Mrs. Kopp was often the government’s public voice on immigration — a contentious issue in Switzerland, especially as people from countries like Sri Lanka sought to come there. She was seen by some as taking an anti-immigrant stance, although she said her concern was about “false” asylum seekers — people seeking to move for economic reasons rather than because of political persecution.

“This leads to an increase in xenophobia,” she said in 1987, “which makes it harder for us to fulfill our human obligations.”

After her political career, Mrs. Kopp did postgraduate studies in European law and human rights law and worked at her husband’s law firm. Mr. Kopp died in 2009. Information about Mrs. Kopp’s survivors was not immediately available.

The first woman to serve as Switzerland’s president, Ruth Dreifuss, was elected in December 1998.

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