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The victory of the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in Switzerland’s parliamentary elections on Sunday has put Europe on edge. The worry is that SVP’s success is a sign of the growing clout of far-right movements, already buoyed by electoral gains in France, Austria, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Denmark.

But some European commentators take a less alarmist view. The Swiss daily, Neue Zuercher Zeitung, writes that compared to some other European right-wing groups, the SVP is rather tame:

“The foreign press have likened the People’s Party – which won the largest share of the popular vote on Sunday (26.6 per cent) – to movements led by France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, Austria’s Joerg Haider, and the Netherlands’ Pim Fortuyn.

Italy’s “L’Unita” newspaper even called Christoph Blocher, the party’s flamboyant figurehead, ‘a Nazi billionaire, who triumphs in Switzerland’s parliamentary elections’.

[Pascal Sciarini of the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration (IDHEAP) in Lausanne] says there are similarities between the People’s Party and other far-right movements in Europe ‘in their nationalist, isolationist, anti-European, anti-immigration and anti-asylum policies’. ‘But one of the main differences is that Blocher and his entourage have never been attacked for being racist or anti-Semitic. There have never been any verbal attacks comparable with those of Haider or Le Pen. The People’s Party is much more subtle,’ Sciarini says.

That’s a view shared by Oscar Mazzoleni, head of Ustat, a political research institute in Ticino. As the author of a recently published study of the People’s Party, he says the Swiss party is heavy on rhetoric, but rather more conventional when it comes to politics.”

But there was nothing tame or subtle about the campaign run by Blocher and his party, with posters portraying asylum seekers as criminals.

London’s Guardian has some details from the xenophobic campaign that went down well with Swiss voters:

“In the run-up to the polls, the SVP put up election posters of a black face accompanied by the slogan: ‘The Swiss are becoming Negroes.’ They also ran posters showing mugshots of criminals next to the words ‘Our Dear Foreigners’. Last week the United Nations High Commission for Refugees attacked the campaign as ‘atrocious’.

Mr Blocher, 63, is a veteran of the Swiss political scene, as well as a self-made billionaire who owns a chemicals firm. In numerous interviews he has linked immigration with crime, and has said that Albanian and African drugs gangs are responsible for many of Switzerland’s woes.”

The SVP has long done well in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, but now, for the first time, it’s had success in the French-speaking part, thereby becoming a truly national party. The SVP is the fastest growing party in Swiss history. Having received only 12 % of the votes 12 years ago, they now hold 55 of the 200 seats in House of Representatives.

Everyone’s trying to figure out why the SVP fared so well this time. Its hard line on foreigners tapped into a general feeling of insecurity caused by an enduring recession, rising unemployment, and increasing uncertainty about how to finance Switzerland’s social system. The Swiss traditionally had a neutral stance in foreign affairs, something the SVP managed to transform into isolationist and anti-European sentiments. It remains the only major Swiss party that has given a straight “no” answer to joining the European Union, and this directness seems to please many Eurosceptic Swiss. With its crude rhetoric, the SVP has championed many direct democracy propositions against E.U. and U.N. membership, and for tougher immigration and asylum laws. On top of its anti-immigrant agenda, the SVP has proposed many fiscally conservative policies (tax-cuts, small government, cutting social spending — sound familiar?).

In its European Press Review the BBC discovers further clues to the SVP’s success:

“A commentary in France’s La Croix puts the success of the SVP down to a perceived threat to Swiss identity. The paper describes the party’s success as an ‘extremist upsurge’ which ‘highlights the concern over identity that has taken hold of a country faced with an increasingly open world’.

It observes that throughout the election campaign the party told the Swiss the story of the country’s ‘golden age. As in other European countries, where other populists have found an audience, nostalgic illusions thus continue to exude their venomous appeal,’ the paper concludes.”

Here’s the Guardian again, with its own analysis:

“Political observers have ascribed the rise of the far right to several factors: the wave of nationalism that swept across much of Europe after the cold war; the uncertain economic situation; the failure of countries like Austria, Italy, and eastern Germany to come to terms with their fascist past; and the dull consensus politics of places like Holland and France.

Yesterday political commentators said the SVP’s clear-cut victory in Switzerland was not just the result of the party’s foreigner-bashing rhetoric but also rising unemployment – now at 4% – and the country’s faltering economy. ‘This is our version of Thatcherism rather than Haiderism,’ Johann Aesclimann, a Swiss political journalist, said. ‘There is no doubt that Blocher flirts with Haiderism from time to time. But it is also law and order, liberal economic policies and tight fiscal policies which have brought him popular success.'”

The German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung (in German) meanwhile points out that by focusing only on the far-right, most news-outlets seem to forget that both left-wing parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens, also managed to gain votes. Swiss politics has definitely been more polarized, the paper says, but that doesn’t mean it leans exclusively to the right.

The larger meaning of all this for Europe remains elusive, but the power shift will certainly have a big impact on Swiss politics. Under the so called ‘Magic Formula’, Switzerland’s power sharing arrangement, 7 cabinet seats were divided between the 4 major parties the same way since 1959 with the SVP as the only party to have just one seat. Now the SVP wants two seats, threatening to challenge that equilibrium and throw Switzerland into, by placid Swiss standards, a convulsion.


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