ZURICH - Outraged reporters at Switzerland's oldest newspaper appeared on Monday to have foiled an attempt to install an editor with links to a leading right-wing party in a tussle that reflects a wider battle over the direction of Swiss politics.
The Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ), founded in 1780 and a Swiss institution comparable to the Financial Times in Britain, announced last week that its editor of over eight years, Markus Spillmann, would go amid disagreement over the paper's future.
Reporters learned at the weekend that Markus Somm, editor at the rival Basler Zeitung and author of a reverential biography of Christoph Blocher - godfather of the anti-immigration Swiss People's Party (SVP) - had been offered the top job.
The SVP's proposed curbs on immigration threaten Switzerland's close trade ties with the European Union and its rise to prominence, which mirrors the success of other like-minded parties such as France's National Front, threatens the country's cozy, consensus rule.
The plan by NZZ chairman Etienne Jornod, who is also executive chairman at healthcare company Galenica, to appoint Somm set off a fierce backlash at the normally staid publication.
"The vast majority of the editorial staff rejects any shift towards a more hardline right-wing stance," Brigitte Huerlimann, an NZZ journalist and representative of an employee commission - which has a say in editorial leadership under the paper's statutes - told Reuters.
Somm bowed out on Monday, saying he had decided against the move and declining to comment further on his departure.
Journalists said the showdown between NZZ's newsroom and its board was over the paper's business friendly, free markets tradition, which is enshrined in its statutes and which shareholders must sign up to in order to buy stock. Analysts said it looked like an attempt to align the paper with the SVP, Switzerland's largest party, which is aiming for a larger role in government after elections next year.
"There is a faction of NZZ shareholders who are seeking to bring the paper further to the right and closer to the SVP," said Kurt Imhof, a University of Zurich sociology professor.
NZZ journalists took to Facebook and Twitter to vent their fury, coining the term "Blochusconi" - a combination of Blocher's name and that of former Italian prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi - to describe what they see as an unparalleled wielding of power.
Were Blocher to extend his influence to include the NZZ, it would represent a full-scale takeover of one of the last bastions of Switzerland's business lobby.
"There is no liberalism with a Blocher-like imprint," wrote Felix Mueller, editor of NZZ's Sunday edition, in an opinion piece responding to an op-ed in Basler Zeitung which called for the two ideologies to draw closer.
Neither Blocher nor NZZ chairman Jornod were immediately available for comment.
Jornod later issued a statement saying the board was continuing to evaluate a host of candidates to succeed Spillmann as editor, was talking to key representatives of the newsroom, and that the editorial independence of the paper was tantamount.
"We want to find a strong and independent candidate whose editorial vibrancy is in controvertible and whose political and journalistic skills fit the weight of the role," it said.
The NZZ had been among the SVP's harshest critics, particularly after Blocher was ousted from government in 2007 and most often aligns itself with the business-friendly Swiss Liberal Democrats (FDP).
The SVP, which has alienated itself from Switzerland's other political parties, is keen to forge alliances ahead of next year's elections to prevent swing voters straying to the left, and the NZZ's editorial weight could be instrumental.
Blocher said in comments published on Sunday in the Sonntagszeitung newspaper that he had no interest in exercising influence at the NZZ, but would welcome it if the NZZ "played along" in more closely linking up the SVP, the FDP and the Christian Democrats, another centre-right Swiss party.
Like print publications around the world, the NZZ has been hit by declining ad revenues and circulation numbers as readers increasingly go online or read free papers for news. The NZZ's circulation fell more than 20 per cent last year, according to media polling firm WEMF.
But the turmoil at the NZZ goes beyond that, underscoring how the SVP, a party that traces its roots to agrarian movements of the early 20th century, has undermined the business establishment's political influence.
The SVP was behind two referendums this year which deeply unsettled the Swiss business community. One imposed limits on immigration, threatening the country's close trade ties to the European Union. The second, which would have forced the central bank to boost its gold reserves, failed two weeks ago.
Despite Somm's withdrawal, the storm is unlikely to die down anytime soon.
"We are employed to represent the paper's open, liberal mind-set," Huerlimann said. "And we will continue to fight for that despite the recent events."