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Switzerland: Swiss Swing To Right

Swiss voters appear to have taken a sharp turn to the right in the country's parliamentary elections at the weekend. Projections indicate the People's Party has made the biggest gains in the voting. This result follows a similar swing to the right in Austria just a few weeks ago. So what is happening in the Alpine Republics? Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 25 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Switzerland's parliamentary elections have produced major gains for the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP). That's the party that opposes immigration and the large-scale granting of asylum to refugees, and also objects to closer links with the European Union and United Nations.

Projections from the elections (on Oct. 24) indicate that the SVP has gained some 23 percent of the vote, the biggest share of any party. If confirmed by the official count, that could give the SVP an extra 15 or more seats, for a total of some 45 seats in the lower house of parliament. This would leave the rightist party second in size in the parliament, just behind the Social Democrats.

The existing four-party governing coalition, which already includes the SVP and which has ruled Switzerland since 1959, seems likely to continue, but the SVP leadership has already demanded an extra seat in the federal cabinet on the strength of its showing.

Although pre-election polls had predicted a swing to the right, even experts were taken by surprise by its extent. As Sibylle Hardmeier, a senior political analyst with the University of Zurich, told RFE/RL:

"For Switzerland, for sure, this was a political earthquake, we have not had such a surge of votes for one party for years."

For Hardmeier, the SVP gains represent a voter response to the party's broad program, not only the anti-foreigner elements but also by promises to rein in the federal budget and offer big tax cuts.

However, the head of Swiss Radio International's English service, Ron Popper, sees the refugee issue as playing a greater role:

"I would say the most clear vote drawer for the People's Party was its clear stance on cutting the number of immigrants, cutting the number of asylum seekers. It is clear that the issue of the ethnic Albanian asylum seekers from Kosovo was very significant in the run-up to the elections."

Bern-based Popper notes the SVP has been in the forefront of moves by Swiss conservatives to curb what they see as the country's over-generous asylum program. The government has already responded to their pressure by agreeing to send home Kosovar asylum seekers early next year.

At the same time, Pepper plays down the importance of the anti-European sentiment in traditionally neutral Switzerland:

"Although there has been a lurch to the right, it is not correct at this stage to say that means the end of Switzerland's moves to integrate into Europe. It means nothing of the sort, (although) it might mean that the Swiss government's intention to become a member of the EU might be put on the back burner for a while."

Putting the right wing gains in context, Popper says that even if the anti-integrationist SVP gained over one-fifth of the vote, this means almost four-fifths of the vote went to parties that are pro-integrationist.

Hardmeier notes that the SVP did well in areas generally considered to be in favor of EU membership, like the industrialized Canton Basle. She interprets this to mean not so much an increase in anti-EU feeling, but rather a consolidation of that minority view under the banner of the SVP:

"What is happening right now in these elections is that the small right-wing parties have disappeared. It seems that the whole right-wing electorate is now incorporated into the Swiss People's Party."

Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. Some of the small movements that have apparently lost support to the SVP are openly racist and xenophobic. Hardmeier points out that the SVP itself is not monolithic, but varies its political complexion from canton to canton. She says the important issue now is whether the SVP moves further to the right by gaining supporters from extremist splinter groups, or whether it neutralizes them in the process of absorption.

Neither Hardmeier nor Popper sees a strong link between events in Switzerland and its neighbor Austria, where earlier this month the far-right Freedom Party posted stunning electoral gains. Popper says:

"I think it is dangerous to link the swing to the right in Switzerland with that in Austria. By no stretch of the imagination should one compare Christoph Blocher, the conservative populist nationalist at the head of the People's Party, with Joerg Haider in Austria."

Popper says Blocher is more moderate than Haider, and could be viewed as fitting well into the right wing of the British Conservatives. Blocher has denied recent assertions that he favors a revisionist historical view that would deny the Holocaust took place. Haider, by contrast, has long been associated in the popular mind with neo-Nazi tendencies.

Nevertheless, there are certain parallels in the election results in the two Alpine republics. The issues of hostility to asylum and immigration are common to both Austria and Switzerland. In Austria, significant numbers oppose the eastwards expansion of the European Union, while in Switzerland, many oppose their own country joining the EU.

And the latest result is sure to boost the confidence of far rightist movements elsewhere in Europe, from Germany to Italy, who are always looking to extend the web of like-thinkers farther across Europe.