What started as a joke to provoke reflection on Swiss values has turned into a nightmare for Ivica Petrusic and Secondos Plus, an association for children of immigrants born in the country.
More than a month ago, Petrusic, the vice president of the lobby group, suggested the cross should be removed from the Swiss flag to bring it more in line with today’s “multicultural Switzerland.” In two recent interviews, Petrusic sought to defuse the issue. Instead, debate flared anew and now Petrusic faces threats from groups on the extreme-right.
During the presentation of the association’s candidates for the National Council on August 23rd, Petrusic made a remark about the city of Aarau, where he lives, and which once was the short-lived capital of the Helvetian Republic. There, for a short period in Switzerland’s history, foreigners had the right to vote. Afterwards, he brought up the former flag of the Confederation, a three-striped banner in green, red and yellow. The next day, his remarks made it into the news and were reported in the manner he insists they were intended: as a joke.
“All Petrusic was trying to do was get people’s attention through humour in order to make them reflect on the values of Switzerland, the past and the future,” Daniel Ordás, a Secondos Plus board member, told The Local. The association has more than 400 members, and the majority hold a Swiss passport.
But three weeks later the Aargauer Zeitung, a local newspaper, followed up and again asked Petrusic about the flag. Instead of explaining that it was a humorous way to bring up the issue of integration in Switzerland, the 34-year-old Christian Bosnian Croat made further remarks that added fuel to the fire.
He said that the old tricolour “represented a progressive Switzerland, open to the world,” as opposed to the current banner which “no longer corresponds with today’s multicultural Switzerland” because the country “has great religious and cultural diversity.” All hell broke loose.
It did not matter that Secondos Plus issued a statement saying that it was all a misunderstanding, and that it was not the organization’s goal to change the national flag. The damage was done.
Despite the clarification, it did not take too long for the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to launch a media campaign against Secondos Plus. Immigration is the cornerstone of its political platform and an ad taken out by the SVP and published on Monday in the Swiss media read: “Immigrants, more and more shameless every day!”
Yvette Estermann, an SVP lawmaker, said the statement made by Petrusic shows “disrespect” towards Switzerland. She wondered “if the next thing will be to abolish Christian churches” in the country.
“As a way of getting people’s attention, it is a good move, but the problem is that this group is involved in politics, so this is outrageous,” said Estermann, an immigrant from Slovakia herself.
“It is unacceptable that immigrants give orders to their host country on what it has to do,” she told The Local. Estermann also leads the conservative immigrants group Neu Heimat Schweiz (Switzerland New Homeland).
For Marianne Binder-Keller, spokeswoman for the Christian-Democratic People’s Party (CVP), Petrusic’s meaning was clear. “I don’t think it was a joke, they were for real,” she said. “But they were later shocked about the reaction it provoked.”
Ordás, however, says that the conservatives should not protest so much, since Petrusic’s gaffe will likely garner them a lot of votes. “The biggest problem here is that this is something that everyone in the SVP wanted to be true because they needed a new reason to bring immigration back into their campaign,” said the executive member of Secondos Plus. “It has been a gift to them.
But beyond politics, there are deeper worries for Secondos Plus since the story started circulating in religious and extreme-right forums on the internet across the globe.
“We have received hundreds of e-mails with insults, requests for us to leave the country, and threats, including a dozen death threats against our vice president,” said Ordás. “Petrusic is quite scared and wants to stay away from public focus because we are taking these threats very seriously.” Still, threats will not prevent Secondos Plus from staying in politics, he added.
“They should not make too much of the death threats they are getting because every politician, including myself, gets them,” Binder-Keller said.
But what hurts Secondos Plus’s members most, said Ordás, is the correspondence from immigrants who call them “idiots” for having given votes in the upcoming general elections to the far-right SVP, which claimed 29 percent of the vote at the last parliamentary elections in 2007.