“The populist paradise,” Switzerland is – by almost all indicators – a model of political stability, economic prosperity, quality of life, multiculturalism, and general democratic health. This may seem like a paradox to those looking in from outside. The particular brand of “Alpine populism” in Switzerland is built on various aspects that set it apart from other versions of the phenomenon spreading across Europe.
Located in Central Europe, Switzerland, officially the Swiss Confederation, is a federated country composed of 26 cantons. In close interaction with surrounding neighbors, Switzerland exhibits considerable diversity in terms of ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, as it was formed of German, French, Italian, and Romansh cantons. The country’s rugged topography and multicultural society have tended to emphasize differences. At odds with this reality, however, Switzerland – perhaps ironically – has long had an unprecedented weakness for populism, partly due to the traditionally conservative and isolationist nature of its politics and social geography, and a media system characterized by concentrated ownership (O’Sullivan, 2019). The country is indeed a home to the largest populist party in Western Europe: the Schweizerische Volkspartei/Union Démocratique du Centre (SVP/UDC — Swiss People’s Party). The SVP and its president, Christoph Blocher, have radically affected Swiss political life over the past decade, rapidly doubling the party’s national vote share to become the country’s largest party with 53 members of the National Council (Skenderovic, 2009). Moreover, the party has shown an impressive ability to take control of the national political agenda (Albertazzi, 2008).
Yet, Switzerland is – by almost all indicators – a model of political stability, economic prosperity, quality of life, multiculturalism (25 percent of Swiss residents are foreign-born), and general democratic health. This may seem like a paradox to those looking in from the outside. However, Switzerland’s particular brand of “Alpine populism” is built on various aspects that set it apart from other versions of the phenomenon spreading across Europe (O’Sullivan, 2019).
Switzerland’s history dates to 1291 when an alliance of cantons gained their independence from the Habsburg dynasty. Ending long-lasting internal conflicts, the country became a federal state with a new constitution in 1848. Although the constitution was revised in 1874, since then, Switzerland’s administrative organization and constitution remained more or less the same. However, following the rise of populist tendencies in the previous few decades, the current constitution, which came into force in 2000, has been changed by popular initiative ten times from 2002 to 2014; three of these ten amendments shed light on Islamophobia and xenophobia among Swiss citizens. On November 29, 2009, the Swiss people voted in favor of prohibiting minarets; on November 28, 2010, they voted in favor of extradition of convicted foreign citizens; and on February 9, 2014, they accepted the principle of immigration quotas while limiting the number of incoming refugees.
The Swiss blend of federalism and direct democracy is unique in the world. Swiss citizens are able to directly participate in the decision-making process at national and sub-national levels and exercise their will in referenda. The Swiss government comprises the seven members of the Federal Council. The Federal Council is the highest executive authority of the Swiss Confederation. Its members represent Switzerland’s main political parties (The Federal Council).
While the country is often seen as a model of stability and champion of democracy, it’s also highly populist – and has been for some time. The past three decades have seen a sharp rise in the success of populist movements in the country, mainly the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, whose parliamentary strength grew from 12 percent in 1991 to a peak of 29.4 percent in 2015 (O‘Sullivan, 2020). Since January 2016, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) holds 2 seats of the 7-seat federal government. Under the decisive influence of Christoph Blocher’s Zurich wing, the party underwent a process of radicalization in the late 1980s. The Zurich wing began to politicize asylum issues, and the question of European integration came to dominate Swiss political debates. The party’s agenda focused on exclusionist beliefs by primarily emphasizing issues related to the transformed cultural dimension of the two‐dimensional policy space (Kriesi et al. 2008, 2012). The strong mobilization of the SVP on the cultural policy dimension led to a realignment of the Swiss party system by the early 2000s, consisting of the left, the moderate right, and the radical right (Bornschier 2010; Kriesi et al. 2008).
The SVP was founded in 1971 by the merger of the Farmers, Artisans, and Citizens’ Party (generally known as the Agrarian Party) with the Democratic Party. It pursued conservative social and economic policies, including lower taxes and reduced spending, as well as the protection of Swiss agriculture and industry. The party also opposed Swiss membership in international bodies such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) (NSD – Norwegian Centre for Research Data). Switzerland, as a “populist paradise” as Albertazzi (2008) once called it, is comfortable with highly controversial populism practices: the right-wing populist SVP and its anti-immigration rhetoric have been part of the government for decades.
During the First World War, despite its complicated location between two of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and two of the Entente Powers (France and Italy), Switzerland managed to maintain a state of armed neutrality. It again carefully tried to maintain its neutrality during the Second World War. But this time it was a more difficult task, with Switzerland surrounded by Fascist powers in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Switzerland implemented a policy to preserve its independent national identity and unique culture, which is known as Geistige Landesverteidigung, or “spiritual national defense.” This culture subsequently exploded, being featured on stamps, in children’s books, and throughout official publications (Church & Head, 2013).
As a neutral state bordering Germany, Switzerland was easy to reach for refugees escaping from the Nazis. As some hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers massed on the border, Switzerland granted asylum to only 644 people during the 12 years between 1933 and 1945; of these, 252 cases were admitted during the war (Bergier et al., 2002). Switzerland’s refugee laws, especially with respect to Jews fleeing Germany, were strict and have caused controversy since the end of World War II. From 1933 until 1944, asylum for refugees could only be granted to those who were under personal threat owing to their political activities; it did not include those who were under threat due to race, religion, or ethnicity (Bergier et al., 2002).
Over the course of the war, Switzerland interned 300,000 refugees (Asylum, 1998). Of these refugees, 60,000 were civilians escaping persecution by the Nazis. Of these 60,000, 27,000 were Jews; between 10,000 and 24,000 Jewish civilian refugees were refused entry (Bergier et al., 2002). These refugees were refused entry on the claim of dwindling supplies. Of those refused entries, a Swiss government representative said, “Our little lifeboat is full” (Plocker, 2015). This strong anti-immigration position is often coupled with a defense of “traditional values” along with a more conservative view of family (i.e., women should stay at home to raise their children and gay marriages should not be allowed) and systematic opposition to environmental protection, which is seen as an attack on personal freedom and self-improvement (Bernhard, 2017).
Today in Switzerland, the issue of asylum seekers is still politically sensitive. Swiss citizens and political parties remain strongly opposed to any measures that might encourage more refugees, most of whom are Muslim, to seek refuge in the country. In June 2016, Swiss voters backed government plans to speed up asylum procedures and these fast-track proceedings came into force on 1 March 2019 (Asylum, 2020). This fast-track program was designed particularly to quickly cleanse the application list by deporting most of the cases within 140 days. Those who cannot be deported are taken to “extended procedure” which takes years. Switzerland received a total of 14,269 refugee applications in 2019, the lowest level in 12 years. The recognition rate remained only at 31.2 percent (Asylstatistik 2019).
If these statistics resemble those from WWII, it shouldn’t be surprising: a similar populist mindset still reigns in Switzerland. “Despite Switzerland’s generosity and humanity, the country is simply too small to fulfill all of the hopes of the people who are seeking a better life here,” said Heinz Brand, an SVP lawmaker and immigration expert (Neghaiwi and Miller, 2015).
Despite its isolated and more inward-looking past, Swiss cities have emerged as international centers of innovation, industry, and commerce. Geneva in particular became home to over a thousand governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including the UN, which the Swiss resisted joining until September 10, 2002. This process of ‘internationalization” is symptomatic of the subversion of the nation-state to corporate power (Bernhard, 2017). A large number of financial institutions, multinational corporations, and international and supra-national NGOs within Switzerland brings the presence of corporate structures in close contact with an egalitarian system of local participatory democracy in often contradictory ways, illustrating tensions between the egalitarian element of participatory democracy and the potential in its inherent hierarchical tendencies to be subverted by the interests of political/economic elites.
The agenda of the SVP and other extreme-right parties is neo-liberal (corporate) and harnesses “traditional values” and anti-immigration phobias to capture the support of workers and rural citizens who are discontent with the effects of globalization (Bernhard, 2017).
Following in the footsteps of the strong SVP, the Ticino League (Lega) – with a vote share of 1.0 percent in the 2015 National Council elections – is currently the second-largest radical right party in Switzerland. It was founded in 1991 to challenge the well-established and dominant parties of the Ticino (i.e. the Liberals, the Christian Democrats, and the Socialists) as well as to defend the interests of the people of this Italian‐speaking canton (Mazzoleni, 2005). Regarding its political profile, Albertazzi (2008) describes the Lega’s specific brand as regionalist, anti‐centralist, anti‐global, and anti‐EU.
The Geneva Citizens’ Movement (MCG), the third largest Swiss radical right party with a vote share of 0.3 percent at the federal level, was founded in June 2005 by Georges Letellier and Eric Stauffer on the eve of cantonal government elections. Both politicians had been excluded from the list of candidates of the Geneva branch of the SVP, as the SVP wanted to get rid of its most extreme and unmanageable members as it sought closer ties with the main parties of the moderate right (Béguin, 2007).
The populist communication of both the Lega and the MCG does not vary across issue domains, while the SVP, which stands for an economically liberal party, significantly relies more on cultural populism than on economic populism. Strong oppositional figures (i.e. Christoph Blocher of the SVP, Giuliano Bignasca of the Lega, and Eric Stauffer of the MCG) more frequently play the populist card than the remaining party members.
In contrast to the radical right, left -wing populism is almost absent in present-day Switzerland. The main parties from the left are the Social Democrats and the Greens, and they refrain from making use of a coherent populist rhetoric, at least in recent years (Bernhard, 2017). The radical left, from which populist mobilizations may potentially emanate, is very weak in Switzerland. Even though they play a rather marginal role in contemporary Switzerland, Communists, Trotskyites, Alternatives, and possibly Young Socialists can be regarded as left-wing populist parties (Bernhard, 2017).
It is worth mentioning that personality cults are at odds with the political culture of Switzerland, as strong leadership has always been viewed with great suspicion (Albertazzi, 2008). However, each of the major Swiss populist parties can easily be related to a strong leader that opposes the establishment. By contrast, it proves almost impossible to identify a cult leader for the remaining Swiss parties. Irrespective of their formal positions, Blocher, Bignasca, and Stauffer all achieved a sort of “godfather” status within their parties (Bernhard, 2017).
In terms of political and civil liberties, Switzerland is a free country (Freedom House, 2020). A decent record of civil liberties, human rights, and political opportunities is retained in Switzerland. The country excelled on almost all indicators regarding the quality of life. It is prosperous and a model for its political stability, democratic health, education, and transportation systems. On the other hand, populist parties play a major role in ruling this successful country. The particular brand of Swiss “Alpine populism” is built in a paradoxically excellent way.
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