Tag Archives: Schweizerische Volkspartei

Switzerland: Pioneer of Right-Wing Populism

The ascent of a narcissistic autocrat with a white nationalist platform to the presidency of the United States has shocked the world. While the nationalist right played a relatively marginal role in US politics until quite recently, there are other countries with a long history of successful populist politics. Perhaps the best example is Switzerland where nationalist right-wing politics have been practiced successfully for two generations. Their rise has been incremental, gradually normalizing xenophobic and exclusionary discourses.

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Poster against “mass-naturalization” (2004)

On February 12, Swiss voters will decide whether to facilitate the naturalization of third-generation immigrants. These are legal residents of Switzerland who were born and raised in Switzerland and whose parents were also born and raised in Switzerland. Under the current arbitrary and discriminatory naturalization laws, which are entirely based on the ius sanguinis, residents whose grandparents immigrated have to meet the same requirements as recent immigrants who were born abroad. Facilitated naturalization is only granted to spouses and children of a Swiss national. Similar measures were rejected by Swiss voters in 1983, 1994, and 2004. The 2004 poster shows dark hands greedily grabbing Swiss passports. Recent polls indicate that there is a slim margin of support of the measure, but it may still fail because a majority of cantons is also required.

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Controversial poster at Zurich main station (Jan. 2017) with the text: “Uncontrolled naturalization? No.”

The political right, particularly the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest party in Switzerland, has campaigned vigorously against the measure, using very controversial campaign tactics. Their main poster shows a woman wearing a burqa with the caption “Uncontrolled naturalization? No to facilitated naturalization.” Andreas Glarner, a leader of the populist right, justified the poster: “The wearer of a burqa is a symbol for lacking integration.” The intended effect is to create a visual link between a sinister, fully veiled Muslim woman and well-integrated third-generation immigrants. A look at the facts shows how baseless and manipulative this statement is. According to federal authorities, a total of 24,656 individuals would benefit from this measure. Of these, only 334 have roots outside of Europe, while 14,331 individuals, or 58%, have roots in Italy. Furthermore, research shows that naturalization enhances integration, indicating the absurdity of Glarner’s arguments.

Switzerland has a unique system of direct democracy that allows any group to launch an initiative to add an amendment to the constitution or to challenge a federal law in a referendum. A national vote has to be held if a sufficient number of voters demand it with their signatures. This system has enabled fringe groups to take their pet issues directly to voters, bypassing the parliamentary process. It also has forced parliament to work out balanced compromise legislation that can withstand a referendum.

The first initiatives against Überfremdung (overforeignization) were launched by a right-wing fringe party called Nationale Aktion gegen die Überfremdung von Volk und Heimat (National Action Against Overforeignization of People and Home). Even though there was no mainstream support for the initiative, 46 percent of the electorate supported it in the first vote of 1970. If adapted, it would have limited non-citizens to 10% of the resident population, down from the actual rate of 17.2%. (The current rate is 24.6% which in part is due to the fact that naturalization in Switzerland is exceedingly restrictive.) In the following years, similar initiatives followed, all of them narrowly defeated, until 2014.

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Swiss fascist election poster (1933): “We clean up”

The term Überfremdung was used even though it was discredited because of its use in Nazi Germany. The term was coined in 1900 in a Swiss publication that was part of an older Swiss polemic against immigration in the years leading up to WW I. Populist discourses against immigration in Switzerland thus go back over a century. The Swiss fascist movement created an anti-immigration visual language that has informed election posters until today. In the 1970s, the fringe right linked “overforeignization” with relevant issues of the day, such as overpopulation, environmental degradation, the selling out of the homeland, and excessive real estate speculation leading to usurious rents. A pseudo-environmentalist approach to limiting immigration was also attempted in the 2014 Ecopop initiative.

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Swiss poster against “overforeignization,” c. 1970.

Since the 1960s, seven different right-wing populist parties have won seats in the national parliament. While these parties remained on the fringe until the early 1990s, they used the tools of direct democracy very effectively to enact an anti-foreigner agenda. While the early initiatives were not successful, they framed the discussion and allowed the fringe right to set the tone for the immigration debate. Just the threat of a new initiative or of a referendum forced the mainstream to make serious concessions to the fringe right, thus establishing a tyranny of the minority that also is an emerging trademark of Trump’s America.

Over the past three decades, the populist right prevented facilitated naturalization of children and grandchildren of immigrants, forced a tightening of asylum laws, and in 1992 engineered the ballot box defeat of Swiss participation in the European Economic Area (EEA), which many saw as a stepping stone towards EU membership. And in February 2014, the political right for the first time managed to pass a measure that would limit immigration. As this new limitation is in violation of existing treaties with the EU, the Swiss government has stalled on its implementation so far.

In the early 1990s, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) established itself as the main right-wing party and managed to transform popular support of anti-immigration issues into success in parliamentary elections; it has been the most successful Swiss party since 1999 and currently has the support of about 30% of Swiss voters. The party became a model for other European right-wing populist parties and recently has been consulted by similar parties in Europe, like Germany’s AfD. Their controversial 2007 election poster, showing a black sheep being kicked out, became such a branding success that they recycled it for a number anti-foreigner campaigns. Furthermore, right-wing parties in Europe used the motif for their own purposes.

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Infamous 2007 Swiss People’s Party (SVP) election poster (left) and imitations from Belgium, Germany, and Spain.

One of the more spectacular successes of the hard right was the passage of a constitutional amendment outlawing minarets in Switzerland in 2009–of which there were exactly four in the entire country. Their campaign posters showed a Swiss flag pierced by minarets that had the appearance of missiles. Anti-Islamic prejudices were further pushed by the same sinister-looking Muslim woman in a burqa seen in the current campaign. And again, this illustration was imitated by right-wing parties across Europe, like France’s Front National and the British National Party, who used it in their own polemics against Islam.

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Minarets piercing the Swiss flag like missiles, Muslim woman in burqa (2009). Imitations from France and Britain.

While the mass appeal of right-wing populism still is a relatively new phenomenon in Europe and the United States, the roots of contemporary right-wing populism in Switzerland go back to the 1960s. It has been a powerful driver of anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-Islamic policies in Switzerland that defied the political elites even though the populist right has never received more than 30% of votes in parliamentary elections. It has developed a polemical and manipulative rhetoric and misleading graphics over the past half century that has become the model for right-wing political parties across Europe.

Addendum February 12, 2017: Hearing on NPR this morning that Swiss voters approved the facilitated naturalization of third-generation immigrants felt a bit surreal. This certainly is a step in the right direction, but the Swiss government set the bar very low with its proposal. While the vote (60.4% of voters and 17 out of 23 cantons in favor) is a setback for the populist right, we have to remember that naturalization for third-generation immigrants still is not automatic and that second-generation immigrants–who were born and raised in Switzerland–still have to go through the exceedingly tough and arbitrary naturalization process. The government’s proposal
set the bar very low, much lower than So the populist right still drives the immigration and naturalization agenda.

On the Wrong Side of History: Christoph Blocher on the Passing of Nelson Mandela

The passing of Nelson Mandela reopens the question of Swiss collaboration with South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Switzerland continued to have both diplomatic and trade relations with South Africa even at a time when the rest of the world shunned the regime. It allowed commodities traders, like Mark Rich, to use Switzerland as a base to circumvent international sanctions against South Africa. Switzerland was not a member of the United Nations then and was not bound by its sanctions. The policy of absolute neutrality served as justification for non-interference and free trade with the result that Swiss corporations were allowed to do business with the Apartheid regime and thus profit from the international sanctions against South Africa.

Christoph Blocher (b. 1940) is one of the most prominent, influential and divisive politicians in recent Swiss history. He was a Nationalrat (national councilor, member of parliament) from 1980 to 2003 and has been serving as Nationalrat again since 2011. He was a Bundesrat (federal councilor) and minister of justice between 2003 and 2007. He represents the populist-right Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP, Swiss People’s Party) which has spearheaded all anti-immigration and anti-EU measures of the past quarter century and which currently is the strongest party in Switzerland.

Blocher was a co-founder of the  Arbeitsgemeinschaft Südliches Afrika (Southern Africa Working Group) in Switzerland–a Swiss lobby group that supported the Apartheid regime all the way to its demise.  The work of this influential but secretive group still is largely unexplored. In spite of the 2005 report by the Swiss historian Georg Kreis on Swiss relations with South Africa between 1948 and 1994, there is little public awareness of the larger role Switzerland played in support of the Apartheid regime.

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Christoph Blocher (left) in his home, discussing the passing of Nelson Mandela. (Screenshot teleblocher.ch, 12/6/2013)

For several years, Blocher has run his own webcast called Teleblocher–a weekly program where he chats with the Swiss journalist Matthias Ackeret about the issues of the week. The 25-minute program recorded on December 6, 2013, includes a segment dedicated to the passing of Nelson Mandela which lasted a total of six minutes and 42 seconds (also posted on Youtube). The conversation was in Swiss German–I transcribed and translated the entire Mandela segment, and I am posting it below. The interview has a certain oral and stream-of-consciousness quality to it, and I decided to render that in my translation even though it is is not always clear what Blocher meant to say. The transcript also does not render the tone of the conversation–for instance the indignation with which he tells us how the Swiss federal government refused to receive the South African president F. W. De Klerk in the late 1980s. The Mandela segment starts at minute 7:12 and ends at 13:54.

Rather than commenting on this interview, I want to make it available to a wider global audience. What this interview shows is a clearly Euro-centric, unrepentant racist apology in support of the Apartheid regime–and of the Swiss collaboration with it. Blocher throughout the interview idealizes the accomplishments of the Apartheid regime while showing contempt for Black liberation. But I think that the text can stand for itself. Read on.

Ackeret [7:12]: Well, our second topic is a bit more serious. This morning, an announcement which went around the world, Nelson Mandela died. What kind of a relationship did you have?

Blocher [7:21]: I did not have a direct relationship, but I followed this issue of course. Simply put, Nelson Mandela was in South Africa which had a very brutal and strict racial division between White and Black—he always fought for Black people to have the same rights. And he was banned and put into prison—that was an island just off the coast where he was put. And as the Whites were–whoever was against that, it was a question of whether the government would be toppled—they intervened quite brutally. And South Africa was part of Southern Africa.

Ackeret [8:11]: Well, you were part of this famous committee.

Blocher [8:13]: The Arbeitsgemeinschaft Südliches Afrika (Southern Africa Working Group); it was not just concerned with South Africa. And that was during the time of the Cold War. The Soviet Union wanted to do everything to gain control over Southern Africa. Because, this was the Cape of Good Hope, it was a very important route around Africa. And whoever strategically had control over this had an important part of global power in their hands. And thanks to the most important state in Southern Africa, South Africa, where the Whites made sure that it would not be Communist-controlled, they did not gain control over it. And the Southern Africa Working Group in which mostly higher officers [of the Swiss Army] were participating was concerned with this issue.

Ackeret [9:06]: But which supported Apartheid—that was the allegation at the time.

Blocher [9:08]: No, no, that is what they said, because we said that South Africa should resolve this problem on their own. Of course, it is clear: Russia wanted the Blacks to gain control because with them they could have turned things. So they held back in such a strategic situation. And the Whites always said that when they get this into their hands we would not come anymore. But one always has to know: Africa turned this regime on its own, and it was the Whites to be sure. And I was part of these discussions. And De Klerk who afterwards turned things.

Ackeret [9:55]: The Prime Minister.

Blocher [9:55]: He [De Klerk] came to Switzerland shortly before that. He was not given a reception, in Switzerland, by the Bundesrat [Federal Council]. They let him stand in front of the Bundeshaus [federal building] just so they would not get a bad reputation with the United Nations. So I received him with two or three other members of parliament in the Bellevue [hotel]. And then, as a White, he turned things around and received the Nobel Prize afterwards. And since then, race discrimination has disappeared. Africa is a wonderful country, this has to be pointed out, in terms of landscape, and the Whites kept very good order. But they did not grant equal rights. They did everything to integrate the Blacks. Hundreds of thousands of them, every year, came from the North, all Blacks, because they had it much better in South Africa than back home. But they did not have political rights. They also did strange things: they labeled benches, only for whites, only for blacks. And the Blacks also did not want to be where the Whites were. For us, this is a alien way of thinking.

Ackeret [11:08]: What was the goal of that committee?

Blocher [11:10]: The committee wanted to ensure that South Africa would not fall into the hands of Communism. Because we knew if that was going to happen the Cold War would turn in favor of the left, of the Soviets. One would not get it back once they would control that tip [of Africa]. The Americans knew that too. That is why the Americans always did both things: Apartheid, nothing at all, but simultaneously collaborated with the South Africans. And I believe that this was the merit of those groups who said, let the South Africans solve the issues on their own, we do not have to give them advice, and they did solve it themselves. South Africa is difficult now. One has to be very careful when going to South Africa, because they have a high crime rate which did not ever exist before. It is difficult to go out into the streets, and of course they are economically doing more poorly than before.  But as before,  South Africa is the state that is the strongest in Southern Africa, and all the other states profit from that as well.  And now Mandela, the representative, they had released him, and since then he has been a hero in South Africa.

Ackeret [12:35]: Rightly so or not?

Blocher [12:37]: Well, I mean, he contributed a lot to the end of racial discrimination—this is alien to us. And rightly so, we say that he fought during his entire life and went to prison—that is always a sign that one is serious about it. But perhaps he has been overrated (“überschätzt”) in many places. This is how it goes: if somebody did something well at some point, everything else he does is considered to be good. But this is all over now. Those who in the early years saw Mandela’s house—which for us almost is a palazzo—and Bishop Tutu, that was the other one…

Ackeret [13:20]: That was the neighbor.

Blocher [13:21]: […] he was on the same side. Well, they did not live in tin huts. They were well taken care of.

Ackeret [13:30]: You went to look at it?

Blocher [13:31]: Yes, look at it. I wanted to see where they lived. Well, I said, of course this is hierarchical. But in these states this has to be that way, that people of this kind and that kind live that way. And of course those in the regime made sure that they did not have to live in poverty.

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Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto before his 1964 imprisonment. Yes, I went to see it too–not exactly a palazzo. (2007)

Ackeret [13:54]: Let’s go back to Switzerland. […]

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Rhäzüns castle, part-time residence of Christoph Blocher. Why criticize Mandela for living in a simple bungalow?