Abusing the Swiss system of direct democracy: the Swiss People's Party aims to stop "mass immigration".

The SVP in Switzerland has taken advantage of a global trend to build a new political consensus through the use of dangerous political propaganda.
Ivan Ureta
17 August 2011

Black boots are trampling and marching over the Swiss confederation. This is the latest aggressive image the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has chosen for its most recent popular consultation. The SVP launched its “stop mass immigration” initiative on July 25, 2011. The SVP is once again taking advantage of and abusing the Swiss system of direct democracy. SVP ideology adheres to the principles of national conservatism. Yet since its foundation in 1971, it has developed a more rightist and xenophobic discourse. In parallel its political strength and popular support have achieved sustained growth.

 In 1999 the SVP became the largest party in the Swiss Federal Assembly and in 2003, it consolidated its position against its main political competitors (Socialist Party, Free Democratic Party of Switzerland and the Christian-Democratic People’s Party) with 26.6 per cent of the votes. In 2007 this trend was confirmed by 672.562 votes (28.9 per cent). At the same time, the 2007 Chronologie Racism revealed that the number of racist events had increased in Switzerland by thirty per cent. Thereupon this trend has grown and the process of political radicalization has used a number of threatening symbols to achieve populist objectives. Nevertheless, the most interesting element to assess is the historical moment in which the SVP has been forming a new political consensus by developing its damaging political propaganda.

Over the last ten years, immigration-related issues have been topping political agendas worldwide. Switzerland, being a country where foreigners represent a fifth of the 7.7 million population, is a fertile ground for this kind of populist public discourse. In 2007, during the federal election campaign, SVP’s political billboards showed three white sheep kicking away a black one from the Swiss territory. In 2008 two new popular initiatives were launched by the SVP. The political strategy and billboard designs are examples of the same unethical attitude appealing to a populist audience. First, the SVP proposed an election against free mobility within the EU and the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria in the European space. The SVP plastered Swiss cities with a billboard in which some black crows were picking on a Swiss map. Tony Brunner, the SVP’s national president explained that his party had decided to adopt such imagery because “the crows are birds of prey, they are aggressive and burglars and threaten the existence of other birds”. Second, SVP led a new popular initiative aimed at promoting “democratic naturalization processes”. The selected images to support this political proposal showed a number of moving hands trying to grab Swiss passports from a box. All these political campaigns failed. However the methodology of associating xenophobic and racist attitudes to threatening images would eventually succeed.

The world economic and financial crisis hit markets violently in 2008. Economic recession has been very profitable for those right-wing parties that were deploying a conservative discourse. This trend was clear, for instance, during the 2009 European parliamentary elections. The same year the SVP in Switzerland also took advantage of this global trend. Immigration as a general international phenomenon, together with Muslim communities, were at the centre of all right-wing public discourses. The minarets controversy illustrates these connections very well. This minarets controversy started in 2005 when a Turkish centre presented a project to build a minaret of 6 meters high. One year later and until 2008, members of the SVP and of the Federal Democratic Union promoted a popular initiative to impede the construction. Because all cantonal parliaments found that the SVP proposal to impede construction was against the principles of the constitution, it was not successful.

Nevertheless, in 2009 the popular consultation was launched. Pre-election polls predicted a negative result. They were wrong. The SVP used a very aggressive and effective billboard. Minarets like rockets were standing on a Swiss map while a black image of a woman wearing the Niqab strengthened the threatening image. Finally this popular initiative was supported and ratified by the 57.4 per cent of the Swiss voters. Regardless of the final outcome of the latest popular initiative, it is worrying that the party that is expected to remain the most powerful political force in parliament’s lower house during the national polls next October is making use of such political propaganda.

The SVP, according to the Swiss democratic tradition, is entitled to launch a popular consultation. But what is very debatable is how this party is acting in order to create a political consensus. By adopting threatening images of immigration, the SVP, through its particular use of the idea of 'freedom of speech' is trespassing obvious ethical limits and civic responsibilities. By exaggerating the phenomenon of immigration, the SVP is confounding and misinforming Swiss public opinion on such a sensitive issue. This might promote future episodes of xenophobia and racism.

Finally, by ignoring some political responsibilities and by proposing that Switzerland should totally manage its affairs of international immigration through restrictive policies and quotas, this popular consultation will ultimately run up against the existing treaties within the EU.

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