Inside Swiss politics: Why everyone is talking about this ‘worm poster’

A new campaign poster put out by the conservative Swiss People's Party (SVP) and featuring worms eating an apple has been the political talking point of the week in Switzerland. Here's why.

Inside Swiss politics: Why everyone is talking about this 'worm poster'
'Who is going to take us seriously?" one regional SVP politician asked of this campaign poster. Photo: SVP

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.

READ ALSO: Ten things you need to know about the Swiss political system

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

Internal criticism

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.

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”.

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”.

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.

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Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse

Minors and adults housed in Swiss asylum centres have faced serious abuses at the hands of security staff, including beatings and chokeholds, Amnesty International warned Wednesday.

Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse
An asylum centre in the Alpine village of Realp, Central Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

In a report, the rights organisation’s Swiss chapter detailed “alarming abuse” in the country’s federal asylum centres, and called for urgent government action to address the problem.

The report documents a range of abuses by staff of the private security companies Securitas and Protectas, which had been contracted by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

Amnesty said it had spoken with 14 asylum seekers, including two minors, who reported having faced abuse from the security officers between January 2020 and April 2021, along with 18 current and former security agents and other witnesses.

The asylum seekers described being beaten and physically restrained to the point where they could not breathe or fainted.

Some also complained about trouble breathing after being doused with pepper spray, and being locked in a metal container in freezing temperatures.

The report found that six of the alleged victims had to be hospitalised, while two said they had been denied the medical assistance they had requested.

“In addition to complaints about physical pain, mistreatment and punitive treatment, these people also voiced concerns about (security staff’s) hostility, prejudice and racism towards the residents,” said Alice Giraudel, a lawyer with Amnesty’s Swiss branch.

Such attitudes had seemed to target people of North African origin in particular, she said. Some of the abuse cases, Amnesty said, “could amount to torture”, and would thus violate Switzerland’s obligations under international law.

In a media statement, the SEM said it took the criticism “very seriously”, but rejected the suggestion that abuses were taking place in a systematic manner in federal asylum centres.

It stressed that there was no acceptance for “disproportionate constraint” of asylum seekers, and vowed to “sanction all improper behaviour.”

Giraudel hailed that the SEM had recently announced it would open an external probe into isolated abuse allegations.

But, she insisted, the situation was alarming and required the government to stop looking at allegations of abuse as the work of “a few bad apples”.