The poster was unveiled by the anti-European SVP on Sunday in the run-up to federal elections in October.
It shows worms eating holes in an apple – a piece of fruit that references the story of Swiss original myth of William Tell and which is supposed to symbolize “pure” Switzerland. One or the worms devouring the apple bears a European flag while the rest of the worms display the colours of Switzerland’s other major political parties.
The text of the German version of the poster reads “Should the left-wing and do-gooders destroy Switzerland?”. In Italian, the message is even more explicit. It states: “Are we going to let Switzerland be destroyed by leftists and pro-Europeans?”
A history of posters designed to shock
The message itself is no surprise. The SVP is something of a pioneer when it comes to right-wing populism in Europe and has run a long crusade against the European Union and against “uncontrolled immigration”.
The party also has a long tradition of billboards designed to shock, with the most infamous example being the “black sheep” poster of 2016. That poster, which showed a black sheep being kicked off a Swiss flag by a white sheep, was part of an unsuccessful SVP campaign in support of a referendum which would have seen foreign criminals convicted of even minor crimes kicked out of the country.
The current political climate also helps explain why the SVP might be drawn to desperate measures. The party is the largest in the Swiss parliament after winning big in the 2015 election, partly on the back of electoral fears of mass immigration.
But the SVP has lost its way since then with a number of major referendum defeats, most recently in an initiative that aimed to prevent Switzerland from adopting tighter gun control rules in line with EU law.
And in a new twist, the latest “worms in the apple” campaign poster has come in for criticism not just from the SVP’s opponents – as would be expected – but also from figures within the party itself.
While critics from outside the party have highlighted similarities between the new SVP poster and infamous Nazi campaigns of the 1930s showing their political opponents as worms, SVP politicians have questioned the choice of image.
Der traurige Versuch der SVP, doch noch irgendwelche Medienpräsenz zu erhalten, offenbart immerhin was in bei der SVP der untersten Schublade aufbewahrt wird: “Der Stürmer” #WahlCH19 pic.twitter.com/r7iSOL7KpK
— RatioRegat (@RatioRegat) August 18, 2019
Pascal Messerli with the SVP in Basel-Stadt’s cantonal parliament described the poster as “shoddy and awkward” while the head of the SVP in Bern, Werner Salzmann, said he could “understand why some people are shocked”.
Erinnert an sehr, sehr dunkle Zeiten. ? pic.twitter.com/0DFpdQDTza
— til morrow (@tilmorrow) August 18, 2019
In a more strongly worded reaction, SVP MP Claudio Zanetti from Zurich tweeted: “Those are not leftists and do-gooders in the picture. They are worms that you eradicate.”
Zanetti went on to ask: “What are you promising with these unspeakable images? Who is going to take that seriously?”
The poster has also gone down badly in the small number of Swiss cantons where the SVP and the centre-right FDP are running together in October’s elections.
But perhaps the strongest message of dissent came from Pentti Aellig, an SVP member in the cantonal parliament in Schaffhausen.
Addressing the party leadership, Aellig said the party had a 35 percent share of the vote in the region “because it does away with these types of posters”.
Lieber Albert. In SH haben wir auch deshalb einen SVP-Wähleranteil von 35%, weil wir auf solche Plakate verzichten. Denk an all die überparteilichen Kommissionen & Listenverbindungen – und stoppe dieses Sujet. Schöner Sonntag noch. #AlbertRösti @SVPch pic.twitter.com/81EVCgAyPW
— Pentti Aellig (@paellig) August 18, 2019
Meanwhile, the SVP party leadership has backed the poster and distanced itself from similarities with Nazi images. But if the reactions this week are anything to go by, the damage may already be done.