9 March 2016

Switzerland’s last vote shows how civil society can block a slippery slope


On February 19th, the Swiss voters taught political demagogues a lesson. With impressive clarity, the sovereign rejected a popular initiative launched by the conservative nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) officially directed against criminal foreigners. 59 percent voted “No”, recognizing that the initiative would create a mess in the political and legal system, jeopardizing the separation of powers and equality before the law. They understood precisely that this was the SVP’s hidden agenda.

The result came as a relief. Only three months before the vote, the polls had shown a “Yes” majority of 66 percent even though government and all parties except the SVP had voiced their concern. What turned the tide at the very last moment was the eye-opening coordinated action of several small civil society groups. This spontaneous grassroots movement tore apart the veil of ignorance that the nationalists had woven. They started out late, had little staff and money – and they made it.

Three groups stand out: the students’ association Operation Libero, the committee Dringender Aufruf (which translates as ‘urgent appeal’), and the law professors. At the end of 2015, Operation Libero took the lead in a coordinated effort of some 56 NGOs. The initial funding consisted of the equivalent of £7000 from Amnesty International, the team had five creative heads, and the strategy was clear: persuade those voters who hadn’t decided yet, and mobilize the opponents. A sense of urgency was needed, given the front of highly motivated SVP voters (in the last parliamentary elections, the SVP got almost 30 percent of the votes), so the youngsters reacted to SVP advertising, denouncing the party’s “biggest lies”. They produced and spread a list of essential facts and arguments, provided flyers that students could distribute locally, and used social media accounts to send around funky memes and home-made informative videos. They raised some £211,000, and the co-president of Operation Libero, Flavia Kleiner, a telegenic 25 year-old history student, even actively lobbied parliament.

Then in mid-January, Peter Studer, the retired former editor-in-chief of Tagesanzeiger, one of the largest daily newspapers, further increased the NGO committee’s public visibility by making some prominent figures join his Dringender Aufruf. Among them were novelist Peter Bichsel and artist Pipilotti Rist, as well as the renowned architects Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Mario Botta. Within one month, they raised more than £700,000 to spend mainly on advertising, countering the predominance of the billionaire Christoph Blocher’s SVP in the public space. Also in mid-January, two public law emeriti from Zurich University, Andreas Auer and Tobias Jaag, united almost their entire profession behind a public manifesto explaining the pitfalls of the initiative.

The next votes are coming up. In Switzerland, the SVP is already cranking up the loudspeakers for the referendum on refugee law in June, the same month Britain will decide on Brexit. It will be good then to remember the recent Swiss lesson: nationalist demagoguery may, quite unintentionally, politicise a nation in a most beneficial way, setting free the energies of civil society against a worrisome trend. In the end, David can beat Goliath.

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