International media were quick to frame the Swiss parliamentary elections of October 18th as a dramatic swing to the right. The winning Swiss People’s Party (SVP) were called “the most successful right wing populists of Europe” by the “Spiegel”. “The Guardian” saw a “record victory” for the “anti-immigration SVP”. And “El Pais” concluded in his post-election analysis that the ongoing refugee crisis had lead to the victory of the “ultranationalist” SVP and to a sharp turn to the right in Switzerland.
These statements are not wrong. But a closer look at the election results shows a more nuanced picture. It is true that the SVP gained a record 29.4% of the vote and is now holding 65 out of 200 seats in the National Council, the lower house of the Swiss bicameral parliament. However, with a win of 2.9 percentage points and 11 seats compared to 2011 this is hardly a landslide by any international standards. Moreover, the SVP had already gained 28.9% of the vote and 62 seats in the National Council in 2007. In other words: at this year’s election, the right wing populists basically compensated the losses they incurred four years ago.
Moreover, framing the most recent elections as a landslide victory for the right wing populists does not reflect the high complexity of the Swiss political system. Switzerland is, by any international standard, a politically conservative and a fairly stable country. Elections have only brought about incremental changes in seats and vote shares in the last twelve years. The checks and balances are numerous and prevent any political party or leader from becoming too powerful. The consensus focused government has always been a big coalition, in which the four strongest parties divide the only seven minister posts among themselves. The SVP is very likely to get a second minister back in December, when the new parliament elects seven ministers for a four year term. But the party’s influence won’t compare to the powers that the strongest government party enjoys in most parliamentary systems across Europe.
In the National Council, Switzerland seems likely to experience a shift to the right in economic, social or environmental policies since the SVP and the right-wing Liberals (FDP) are now only a few seats short of a majority. However, the two parties are divided on important issues like the relationship with Europe or immigration, and the SVP will often remain isolated. Moreover, there is a solid center-left majority in the smaller upper house that represents the 26 Swiss Cantons. Since every new law has to be approved by both parliamentary chambers, we are likely to see more gridlock in Berne rather than many fundamental policy changes.
Switzerland considers itself a direct democracy. Strictly speaking, it is a half-direct democracy with important representative elements, but all major political decisions are subject to a popular vote at the end of the decision-making process. In fact, every single law that the parliament passes is subject to a referendum, if 50,000 citizens ask for it. And 100,000 citizens can ask for a vote on a constitutional amendment through a so-called popular initiative. The constant threat of a popular vote leads to more consensual decision-making in the government and in the parliament, since any extreme law risks to be outvoted by the people.
This means that elections are much less important here than in parliamentary democracies and that the parliament plays a less crucial role. Therefore, the SVP and its informal leader Christoph Blocher, a retired industrial billionaire, don’t exercise their power in the parliament, but at the ballot box. Over the past few years, the party has won symbolical and highly problematic votes on the automatic expulsion of criminal foreigners, on the ban of minarets and recently, at the beginning of 2014, on the introduction of caps for immigration including for EU-citizens. In fact, Switzerland did experience a shift to the Right. It did not happen overnight at the most recent parliamentary elections, but over the last several years in often xenophobic, highly professional and well-funded referendum campaigns.
The SVP has built its success over the last two decades on anti-immigration and anti-European rhetoric and sentiment. Even after the October elections, the party won’t find enough allies to get its extreme proposals through the parliament. But it could not care less. It will prefer fighting referendum campaigns in order to fire up its supporters in “us against everybody else” battles. For that reason, the Swiss elections won’t fundamentally change the state of play in the complex relationship between Switzerland and the European Union. In the new parliament, there is still a very solid majority of Greens, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Liberals advocating for a flexible implementation of the 2014 vote on caps on immigration that will enable Switzerland to keep the free-movement agreement with the EU and all the other bilateral agreements in place.
What is true for big political decisions in general is true for the future of Swiss-EU-relations in specific: it won’t be decided in the parliament, but by a popular vote. It seems likely that the Swiss people will face a stark choice in the near future: a choice between strictly implementing the constitutional provision about caps on immigration for EU-citizens, and upholding the economically vital access to the European single market through a complex set of bilateral agreements with Brussels. The looming referendum campaign is likely to be tough and tight. The Eurozone crisis- and the refugee-crisis haven’t improved the EU’s already bad reputation. Popular support for EU membership remains marginal. Joining the EU is, therefore, not a politically realistic option in Switzerland for the foreseeable future.
This is, in part, the consequence of the success the SVP has enjoyed over the last years gearing up anti-EU sentiment. But it is also the consequence of the other parties shying away from the political battle. The Liberals and the Christian Democrats have become more EU-skeptical and tougher on migration in fear of losing voters to the SVP and in the hope of catering to the popular sentiment. Similarly, the Social Democrats have become very lukewarm supporters of European integration and have preferred to focus on their own initiatives of economic and social issues instead of fighting uphill battles on Europe and immigration. The strategy of appeasing or effectively ignoring populist rhetoric has neither paid off for the centrist parties and the Left, nor has it effectively contained the SVP. But it has led to a structural shift to the Right in Swiss politics over the years.
The Swiss Greens, the strongest opposition party not represented in the seven-seat-government, have sometimes tried to present themselves as the most outspoken alternative to the SVP. However, they were clearly on the losing side on the election day. The Greens only gained 7.1% of the national vote (down from 8.4%four years ago) and 11 seats in the National Council (down from 15). The losses seem more substantial if compared to the election results in 2007 when the Greens gained a record 9.6% of the vote and 20 seats in the lower house of parliament. The fiscally conservative and more market oriented Green-Liberal-Party also went down, from 12 to 7 seats in the National Council.
These losses for the two Green Parties can partly be explained by the proportional electoral system with 26 cantonal constituencies, where even small changes in the vote share can add up to substantial losses of seats. Moreover, migration and the consequences of the strong Swiss Franc for jobs in the important export sector were the dominating themes of the election campaign. Environmental policies or the nuclear phase out were much less important than four years ago, when the campaign took place against the backdrop of the dramatic accident in Fukushima. Finally, the Green-Liberals led an unsuccessful campaign for a complicated popular initiative, with the goal to replace the Added Value Tax by a Tax on non-renewable energies. Their idea only gained the support of 8%of the electorate at the popular vote in March 2015, which represents the lowest support for any popular initiative in almost 100 years.
Greens across Europe are advocating for more citizen participation. In Switzerland however, direct democracy has led to a rather weak position of the Greens in the national parliament and has benefitted the SVP in recent years. Structural changes in direct-democratic Switzerland don’t happen on election days, but are a result of continuous visibility in referendum campaigns and the ability to put your claims at the top of the political agenda through popular initiatives. The strong participatory elements in the Swiss system have been in place for about 150 years, and there are almost no constitutional safeguards to protect minority rights and the rule of law against populist majority decisions. It is true, that there are big differences in campaign budgets. But the SVP has pursued the most professional and effective communication strategy, while its opponents struggle to build up networks of engaged activists and grass-root supporters. Stopping the structural shift to the Right will require much stronger organizational efforts and a more professional communication strategy to counter populist language and narratives.