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Switzerland: Right Makes Big Gains In Elections, Composition Of Government Now In Question

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) made big gains in Switzerland's general election over the weekend. It won 55 seats in the 200-seat lower house of parliament, the National Council -- an increase of 11 seats. That gain now makes it the biggest party in the Council.

Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Swiss voters have given strong support to the country's main anti-immigration party in parliamentary elections.

Provisional results from yesterday's national vote show the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) has emerged as the biggest party in the 200-seat National Council, the lower house of parliament.

The SVP gained 11 seats for a total of 55, overtaking the Social Democratic Party (SP), which gained one seat and now has 52. The small Greens party also gained. The big losers were the centrist parties.

Max Ackermann, political commentator of Swiss Radio DRS in Bern, told RFE/RL that this is not so much a move to the right as a parting of the ways. "If you analyze this carefully it is not a swing to the right, because also the left won. So it is a polarization of Swiss society, I think that it is correct to say the losers are the parties in the center -- the Christian Democrats and the Liberals -- and the winners are, on the one hand, the rightists, and [on the other], the socialists," Ackermann said.

The SVP, which is led by billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher, had campaigned on a theme of illegal immigration and crime as a threat to the nation. The campaign was so strident that the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which is based in Geneva, took the unusual step of complaining publicly. Spokesman Ron Redmond said last week that the SVP had used "some of the most anti-asylum advertisements by a major political party that we've seen in Europe to date."

In a full-page advertisement in French-language newspapers, the party accused certain foreign ethnic groups of heavy involvement in crime, including the drug trade.

The tactic appears to have paid off, as it is precisely in the French-speaking cantons where the SVP gained new votes. The party has its roots in the German-speaking east, and until now has made only a slight showing in the more liberal west.

Last night, the president of the SVP's Geneva section, Jacques Pagan, was jubilant. "[The result] is very positive. It was about time. We have been fighting for that for a long time in Geneva. Our success, so to speak, goes hand-in-hand with our general success in all regions of Switzerland," he said. "We could feel, in the last few years, that the leadership of Mr. [Christoph] Blocher imposed a clear vision shared by a lot of people and that was when everything changed."

Considering that Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world, let alone in Europe, to what can the xenophobic appeal of the hard right be attributed?

"You must bear in mind that Switzerland has one of the highest levels [per capita] of foreigners in Europe," Ackermann said. "It is near 20 percent of the population, and a lot of people have the impression that no other party [apart from the SVP] is really representing their interests."

Ackermann said that in some inner-city areas, there are some schools which have few Swiss children in their classes, and that scares the local people. He also says that the hostility of the Swiss community is directed not at normal guest-workers, nor at genuine refugees, but at the illegal immigrants who are seen as taking advantage of the Swiss social-security system.

Another reason that the SVP has done well, according to Ackermann, is that it is the only major Swiss party that has given a straight "no" answer to joining the European Union, and the party's directness on this issue pleases many Euroskeptic Swiss. There is also discontent over the state of the Swiss economy.

As one woman on a street in Geneva put it: "We needed a shake-up, and now it is done. I don't have a political party, don't represent a single party, but it all went too far, so, automatically, we needed a change. [The present government] took all our money away. They took it for [financially rescuing] Swissair, for the national exhibition [Expo 02]. How much has it all cost us? We needed a change."

The big question now is, what happens in terms of a new federal government? The Swiss have a unique arrangement in that the ruling cabinet in Bern traditionally includes all four major parties from the left, center, and right. Under a power-sharing agreement since 1959, the SVP has had one seat and the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats have had two each.

Now the SVP is pressing for two seats. That may not sound like much, but it is a big change for Switzerland, with its method of direct democracy.

As political analyst Sibylle Hardmeier of Zurich University told RFE/RL: "It will have consequences for the government for the first time in Swiss politics for a long time, since '59, because even before the election, most of the parties gave signals that if the SVP had a big success -- and it has now had what for Swiss circumstances is a historic success -- the [composition] of the government will be discussed."

Hardmeier said, however, that the SVP is already irritating its partner parties by behaving as though it is the "victor" in the elections. The Social Democrats have noted that the SVP took some 27 percent of the vote, which may be the biggest slice -- but is well short of a majority of the electorate.

The success of the Swiss rightists echoes that of the hard-right Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider in Austria several years ago. The Freedom Party became part of the government but has seen its support dwindle in two of the most recent elections in Austria. It also follows strong showings in recent years by anti-immigration parties in the Netherlands, Denmark, and France.