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How a far-right party came to dominate Swiss politics

Meritxell Mir · 10 Oct 2011, 14:45

Published: 07 Oct 2011 17:45 GMT+02:00
Updated: 10 Oct 2011 14:45 GMT+02:00

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It has become the biggest party in Swiss politics and one of the most talked-about far-right parties in Europe. Meritxell Mir looks at how the SVP became so successful.

With a strident anti-immigration stance and provocative campaigns, the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has become one of the most successful right-wing populist parties in Europe. It now looks set to repeat its success in October’s federal elections. 

For decades, the SVP seemed to be little more than a curiosity in Swiss politics, winning about one in every ten votes in elections. However, since the early 1990s its popularity has rocketed, its share of the vote doubling in 12 years. In the 1995 federal elections, the far-right party got 14.9 percent of the votes. By 2007, its support had risen to 28.9 percent. 

“It has become the strongest and most stable extreme-right party in Europe,”  says Georg Lutz, director of Swiss Electoral Studies at the Swiss Foundation for Research in Social Sciences in Lausanne. 

Today, it’s as strong as ever. The latest poll, published on September 9th and conducted by pollster gsf.berne, showed the SVP way ahead of its opponents, with the support of 28 percent of respondents. The Socialist Party ranked second with 20.5 percent of the vote share, followed by the Free Democratic Party (15.6 percent), the Christian Democratic Party (14.5) and the Greens (9.5). 

Like similar parties in other countries, the SVP plays on voters’ fear of change, Lutz argues:

“Globalization, the openness and the enlargement of the European Union, and the increasing amount of immigrants were seen as a cultural threat to Swiss identity for many people.”

The SVP identified those fears and “it became a one-issue party,” always talking about immigration “in different variations,” such as foreign criminals, minarets or the burqa, Lutz tells The Local.

“First, they put the European Union issue on the table; then, when that issue lost its potential due to bilateral agreements, they switched to the question of immigration and foreign criminals,” explains Simon Bornschier, a political researcher who studies the rise of right-wing populist parties in Switzerland and the rest of Europe.

The SVP’s clear and unambiguous message has helped it set the political agenda for the last 15 years, Bornschier says. It has done this partly through Switzerland’s system of popular initiatives - referendums launched as a result of public petitions. Some of the most high-profile recent popular initiatives, such as the minaret ban or the automatic deportation of foreign criminals, were launched by the SVP.

The party’s campaigns have also influenced, or at least closely reflected, voters’ perceptions of reality. According to a poll on citizen’s main concerns published by gfs.berne in September, about 45 percent of the Swiss polled identified immigration as the most important issue in the country. The environment (25 percent) and the economic situation (22) followed far behind. 

According to polls, the average SVP voter is a male from a lower socio-economic group who lives in one of the German-speaking cantons.

Strong presence in the media

The SVP’s cause is helped immeasurably by its domination of the Swiss media. According to a study conducted by the Institute for Political Sciences at the University of Bern, the SVP was present in one third of the 8,000 online headlines checked via RSS between late June and mid-September. 

The research, lead by political scientist Marc Bühlmann, concluded that the SVP’s success in the media is due to a great extent to its provocative messages. Even when press coverage of the far-right party is negative, they bring the SVP the attention it wants, the study pointed out.

“If you ask journalists in Bern which party press conferences they prefer to attend, they will say the SVP's because it is more fun,” says Lutz. “The reason is that they are provocative, and they reduce their message to very central elements and frame it and phrase it in a very catchy way.” 

Always campaigning

Its success can also been explained by how active the SVP is. “It was probably the first party who moved from a logic of campaigning three months ahead of the elections to be strategically and permanently campaigning,” says Lutz.

Story continues below…

The millions of dollars thrown into the hands of the SVP has also helped to spread the views of Christoph Blocher, vice president and party member.

In the 1991 and 1995 elections, the SVP managed to draw together most of the support that other small extreme-right parties had enjoyed before. Today, “these small political groups have almost vanished,” Bornschier tells The Local.

In order to become the dominant far-right party in Swiss administrations, it was necessary to mobilize the party’s grassroots. Today, the SVP has more members than any other party.

“They are very good at organising, they systematically open local branches and their top members go every week to local events to talk to people,” says Lutz.

“What they do is amazing,” he adds.

And if the polls are to be believed, the success of the SVP looks set to continue for some time to come, much to the dismay of many of the country's immigrants and more centrist parties.

Meritxell Mir (news@thelocal.ch)

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Your comments about this article

2011-11-06 09:30:11 by Ahrens
Its very concerning when so called more educated people say that less educated people are more influenced by right wing parties! Yeah right, all the left wing voters are high educated! Most of reporters/journalist are left winged and therefor biassed anyway, because they want/must be politically correct! But what is politically correct? Enforce foreign countries to get à democracy, by invading them with more advanced weapons? What makes us better or gives us THE right to implement à system so different for what they have used for centuries? Right, their oil! The SVP has every right to refuse any foreigner that does not contribute to their country! And foreigners that harm the society by criminal acts or financially, should be returned to their country of origin! This is the Same in the USA, canada, Australië,.... And many other countries! After my second MBA in the USA, the university gave me a permit for 1 month extra for travelling, after that my student visa was expired and i had to go back to Belgium! What i did offcourse! As Mr Sarkozy and Mrs. Merkel allready said earlier, the multicultural society in europe is an Utopia and doesnt work!
2011-10-20 11:15:10 by Kat
@nathan45 "Swiss people dont empity their own trash bins? If you mean that they dont put the garbage directly in the truck no kiding what country does?" I mean that the people employed in offices and business across the country to deal with waste disposal and cleaning are almost never Swiss. Guy that cleans our office is from some Eastern European country. Was the same in the office I worked in before, whole group of women that wore Muslim clothing. But you already know this, and choose to ignore it and jump on the fear-bandwagon. If you win, they'll be an opening at our office if you want to come clean it. (as an aside, the cleaners I mentioned above are all really nice people that did a good job, not the "evil beings" that the SVP would have us all believe)
2011-10-18 06:12:18 by nathan45
@ Kat Swiss people dont empity their own trash bins? If you mean that they dont put the garbage directly in the truck no kiding what country does? Theres unemployed people who would take that work stop giving them so many benifets and they will work if they dont want to starve. People have gotten too comfortable living off benifets thats one of the many causes of this economic trouble. Just today I read this on the locals Swedish edition. "Current numbers show that only a fifth of women originating from outside of Sweden are working within three years of moving to the country, which is an alarmingly low number, argues Sweden’s Minister for Integration, Erik Ullenhag. The comparable figure for immigrant men is 50 percent after the same period of time." HOLY CRAP! Why is it that no one gets it immigration from non western nations is a fail the sooner every western nation gets that the better. Guess what every one those 3 to 5 years they aren't working who pays the bills you the tax payer. Stand up say no more to your governments.
2011-10-18 00:40:49 by mkvgtired
@TobiasM "if a political party tried to create this sort of advertising in Britain or America they would be instantly censored for inciting racial hatred." The US does not have "inciting racial hatred" laws, and the Supreme Court has ruled that "racist" speech is still protected by the first amendment. Virtually all speech is protected. Do people on these forums use any actual facts when they are talking about the US, or do they just make them up as they go along.
2011-10-13 13:39:56 by Kat
@nathan45 Far right is generally seen as a bad thing by most Europeans, so that would probably explain any bias you think might be there. Personally I think it's ok to be careful concerning immigration, but to be anti-immigration is idiotic. I've noticed that Swiss people don't empty their own bins/trash.
2011-10-12 18:40:08 by nathan45
@ asteriks You are a complete fool. First off if a people elect some one if you think its right or not because of your personal political beliefs does not matter its called democracy the people get what they vote for. No I dont agree with anything hitler did but I am Anti immigration from non western countries. Secondly for the local to call the people who voted for the SVP uneducated is absolutly insulting this is a very bias comment from a very shaky sorce according to the polls?! what polls where did they get this information is it possible that the person who wrote the article has a bias of their own?
2011-10-12 00:55:09 by Linux4ever
I'm an immigrant living in Switzerland - and a left-leaning one at that. While I see a number of things the SVP is doing (e.g. the minaret ban) as highly problematic, I can see why some people would support them. They aren't as extreme as many articles make them sound, and they're not quite as bad as the right-wing parties in the rest of Europe, so those comparisons aren't really fair. A lot of people here support the SVP, and have no problem whatsoever with my presence here. They (the supporters, not necessarily all members) aren't completely anti-immigration, they're just in favor of limiting it. Which makes sense to some extent, given the number of immigrants every year is a lot bigger than the number of people leaving the country - and rents and prices for houses are already extremely high. All the things I hate about them aside, the SVP is the only party that takes a reasonable position on the EU. Joining the EU would be very wrong for Switzerland - the EU would destroy the country's direct democracy (EU law outweighs national law, and the EU doesn't have any form of direct participation), it would drive prices in the already expensive country through the roof by forcing Switzerland to double its VAT, and it would destroy neutrality. Everything Switzerland stands for would be gone. The SVP takes up a couple of important topics such as media diversity that other parties tend to ignore. Also, the SVP tries harder to at least appear to be close to the people. I've sent Christoph Blocher an email, and actually got a reply from him within a week. Despite the fact that I'm an immigrant and not even eligible to vote. This is not meant as an endorsement of the SVP - its bad sides outweigh its good sides. Instead, please consider this a wake-up call to the other parties. We're in desperate need of a left-wing party that wants to keep us out of the EU, strongly enforce direct democracy, and keep the neutrality in foreign relations. Participating in war is not an option. Give us that, and I expect the SVP is history.
2011-10-11 20:41:04 by TobiasM
Its very disturbing, if a political party tried to create this sort of advertising in Britain or America they would be instantly censored for inciting racial hatred. I have to say that Switzerland never really learnt any lessons from European fascism of the 20th Century. Being "neutral" is just not the case either. More like happy to do business with Dictators and Extremists under the banner of banking and profiteering on the sales of looted treasures and the manufacturing and sales of weapons etc. So not all is as rosy in the land of cheese and chocolate as they would have the world believe. I don't think that it is only the working classes who follow the Blocher rhetoric either.
2011-10-11 12:56:18 by asteriks
@nathan45, your comment should be moved and not article. If people gave a vote for Hitler, does it mean automatically that Hitler is good? The same is with Saddam Hussein and so on. As article mentioned, low educated people give a vote for SVP, because they are not politically educated and they hardly find their place in the system, so, they are easy to convince that immigrants are responsible for that. My opinion is that government is responsible if people have problem to find job. But politicians like theeir privileges and in order to get votes again, they must put finger on someone. Instead to put finger on themselves, they put finger on immigrants and low educated people believe in that. Beside it, article didn't research some more factors: behind politicians are rich people, someone had to finance Hitler, Blocher, etc. Without big money, there is no success in politics. Hitler died, riches survived, therefore we have still fascism in Europe. Machine behind Hitler is not stopped when Hitler died. They lost war and they had to be quiet, but unofficially they continued with the same way of thinking and riches need dictatorship of capital. Fascists make repression very easy, they don't care for human rights and other "leftists" values. Beside it, many (tabloids) journalists work for political police (in every country) and such journalists in Swiss support SVP, so, it is not just "SVP is attractive" than SVP is supported by political police and their journalists. There is no democracy if medias are not free from any gov-agency. So, to measure why some political party became suceesfull, people must be politically educated. In my country, journalism is part of faculty of political science.
2011-10-11 05:21:32 by nathan45
I think this acticle should be removed it implies that its a bad thing to be anti immigration if its so bad why is the SVP the biggest party in the country because most people dont want mass immigration from dangerous third world countries.
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