6 November 2015

Switzerland’s growing nationalist right sets its sights on government


The mood is currently somewhat tense in Switzerland. Whether you go to a pub or to the movies, whether you wait at the bus stop or in the queue at the post-office, you will inevitably witness some people emphatically discussing the countries’ right-wing shift. Banking on xenophobia, resentment toward immigration and the EU, the right-wing SVP (Swiss People’s Party) has made another advance in the recent elections, reaping 29.4 % of the votes and 32.5 % of the seats in the “Nationalrat”.

The remaining 70.6% are torn. Many Swiss are scandalized, like Lukas Bärfuss, a middle-aged novelist and playwright who caused a considerable stir and an unusually fierce debate by publishing an acidic essay about his home country in a German newspaper. Others, while disliking the election results, remain confident that the Swiss “consociational democracy” (Lijphart) will gently force the more extreme politicians and voters to behave themselves. The Swiss system with its magic formula for the proportional distribution of seats in government among the most important parties indeed promotes cooperation, as there is no winner or winning coalition in the traditional sense, taking all the seats. As a result, the Swiss government is more of an agency, or administration, than a political body.

Both reactions, sorrow as well as serenity, make sense – and they don’t exclude each other: There is indeed an opinion shift to the right in Switzerland, just like elsewhere, and it is not absurd to find that disturbing. But instead of bursting out in the parallel universe of Pegida marches, riots and violent attacks on asylum homes like in Germany, this trend finds expression and is being negotiated within the existing political institutions that don’t lend any party or coalition majoritarian power. While the system cannot block nationalism, racism and xenophobia, it has so far been successful hedging it in.

Bärfuss’s essay and later reiterations backfired because of factual errors, undeservedly mean allegations, twisted interpretations and a disturbing dose of conspiracy theories. This earned him shrieking protest and unfair verbal retaliations – unfortunately, since some of his points were quite good and deserve a more careful intellectual scrutiny. For example, he had a valid point in scolding the carelessness with which the SVP intends to “free” the country of its obligations from international law.  The next popular initiative launched by the SVP, if accepted, will force the government to withdraw from the European Human Rights Convention. In this context, Bärfuss very pertinently castigated the perverted and inflationary use of the popular initiative by the SVP.

The novelist who sees himself as a public intellectual also complained about the romanticism of many Swiss about their institutional heritage – a criticism which, as it turns out from the reactions, comes close to blasphemy. And finally, he ridiculed the pettiness of Swiss public concerns and the slowness of the political process, where urgent policy issues are ignored and legislation is put on hold, to the effect for example that it was American, not Swiss courts that could take the initiative to go after the deeply corrupt Fifa officials. After the rough treatment the country has had to endure from the EU and the US with regard to the long cherished banking secret and tax evasion, many Swiss – and especially those with an SVP leaning – however consider American courts the devil incarnate.

At any rate, winning 29.4 % of the vote is hardly a “landslide” victory, as Roger Köppel, a newly elected SVP member of parliament trumpeted in the “Die Weltwoche”, a magazine he owns and runs as an editor-in-chief. But it is undeniably a more than respectable result and an all-time high for a party that scored below 10 % in the mid-seventies but has grown steadily ever since under the guidance of Christoph Blocher, a former entrepreneur and minister of justice. Over decades, this now 75 year-old character, a square man with a strong belief in his own mission, both a powerful patriarch and a populist enfant terrible, has been pouring huge amounts of energy and money into his party. As for the money, nobody knows how much exactly, as there is no law obliging the parties to reveal their financial resources. At any rate, Blocher’s investments, including in the media sector, have helped to prepare the ground, to widen the SVP’s scope and to transform what was once a rural party into a broad political power catering to young urban professionals as well. The SVP must be taken seriously.

The main outrage of Bärfuss’s comments came from his positioning the SVP – and its voters – at the extreme right of the political spectrum, essentially on the grounds of their rejecting the European Human Rights Convention and their attempt to repeal the Swiss asylum law. The need to close the gates and to kick out foreign criminals and parasites is indeed a recurrent motive in the isolationist SVP rhetoric, even though Switzerland, geographically far removed from the “Balkan route”, has seen very few refugees so far. The xenophobic populist stance comes with inflammatory words and drastic images – and yet, the SVP cannot readily be classified as a Nazi party. Its rapid growth has brought with it considerable heterogeneity. SVP members and voters fall into at least two distinct groups.

One group does indeed consist of ultraconservatives, xenophobes, nationalists and other traditionalists hailing the Swiss “Sonderweg”, some of them fishing in muddier waters. The other, rather centrist group unites moderately conservative advocates of free markets. The party so far has been living well with its dualism. Especially with regard to the controversial question about how to define the relationship between Switzerland and the EU, however, the moment will come when a choice must be made. The popular initiative “against mass immigration” launched by the SVP and accepted by a slim majority in February 2014 catered to the nationalists but worried all business people, including within the party itself. It also put government in a complicated situation, which made the contrarian SVP members gleefully clap their hands. The initiative orders the government to cancel its agreement with the EU on the free movement of people, which implies giving up the other treaties that have been negotiated bilaterally with the EU in order to obtain access to the common market. Economically, the blow would be enormous. Ever since the currency revaluation in January 2015, the country isn’t quite in a situation to afford anything similar. But in their daydreams about national autonomy and collective independence, many SVP members are willing to pay that price.

With almost one third of the votes cast, the SVP now has more than a good reason to claim a second seat in government – a seat they lost in 2007 when a majority of the two chambers unexpectedly ousted Blocher and replaced him with the moderate Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who has served as a well-respected minister of finance ever since. She has announced her departure for the end of the year. The great question is whether the SVP, eager to have the 2007 trauma compensated, will be able to agree on a candidate for Widmer-Schlumpf’s succession that will be acceptable to a majority in the two chambers of parliament (Ständerat and Nationalrat). On December 9, the assembly will elect the new administration. Should the SVP obtain adequate representation and responsibility, as it ought to, it will be most intriguing to watch how it will go about solving the problems it has created.

Karen Horn is a German author, journalist and lecturer in the History of Economic Thought