Interview #6 – Swiss populism and direct democracy. A talk with Laurent Bernhard

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Laurent Bernhard

Last October, the Federal Swiss elections confirmed that the right-wing Swiss People Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, SVP) is able to understand and express the population’s fears, mainly about issues such as immigration and European integration. POP asked Dr. Laurent Bernhard to discuss the Swiss situation. Dr. Bernhard is a postdoctoral researcher for the NCCR Democracy project “Populist strategies in current election campaigns” together with Prof. Marco Steenbergen. His research interests include direct democracy, comparative political economy, Swiss politics, and political communication.

1) Swiss Federal elections 2015: the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC) obtains almost 30 percent of the votes, its best result ever. From a “European” perspective this may sound astonishing, since one would expect populism to score well in the context of a severe economic crisis, which is not the case for Switzerland. How do you explain this result?

swiss elections 2015The strong electoral performance of the Swiss People’s Party is not primarily related to economic issues. The SVP was able to take full advantage of the fact that immigration in general and the topic of asylum in particular were on the top of the political agenda in the course of the campaign. According to first post-electoral surveys, the relations to the European Union played an important role apart from these immigration-related topics. Yet, it is precisely on these two cultural issues that the SVP enjoys issue ownership.

kriesi-pappas crisis populism2)  In “European populism in the shadow of the great recession”, edited by Kriesi and Pappas (2015), you analysed the SVP’s discourse from 2003 to 2013. You analysed a big corpus of texts, including the party’s press releases, the oral presentations at its press conferences, its party newspapers, and the yearly programmatic speeches of its leader. Did you find evidence of a change in the SVP’s political discourse? Did it become more populist over time?

No. The SVP did not increase its populist communication during this period. This is hardly surprising, given that the radicalization of the party took place much earlier. At the federal level the influence of the so-called Zurich wing, led by Christoph Blocher, began in the late 1980s and lasted during the whole 1990s.

4127391831_86f6f3fa91_n3) According to your analysis, when does the SVP resort to a populist speech? In other words, which issues do “require” a populist touch?

Indeed, the main finding of our analysis refers to the crucial role played by issues. The SVP’s level of populist communication is highest when it comes to immigration, European integration, and related institutional issues. With respect to the latter, the party has recently launched a popular initiative, which stipulates that Swiss constitution should be above international law. This ballot proposition illustrates the tensions between popular sovereignty and the rule of law, a tension that is currently very salient in the semi-direct democratic system of Switzerland. More generally, the SVP tends to make use of a populist discourse on those issues where the gap between cosmopolitan elites and sovereigntist citizens is largest. Capitalizing on widespread popular xenophobia, and negative attitudes towards the European integration process, the party has been able to repeatedly tap into people’s resentment by attacking the government over immigration and the European integration process.

4097202591_ca2ed711a0_n4) Switzerland is affected by the so-called “migrants’ crisis”, but less than other countries. Once again, how is it possible to explain the success of a right-wing populist party in absence of both economic crisis and mass migration? Is it a sort of preventive defence: we don’t want migrants so we vote for an anti-immigration party?

There is no doubt that the electoral success is ultimately based on the rejection of the multicultural society. Such attitudes are rather stable over time. However, we should not forget that Switzerland is currently experiencing a high level of immigration on a per capita basis. I am not only referring to rising applications of asylum-seekers but also to labour migration. The latter is much important in terms of numbers. Against this background, it is no coincidence that Swiss voters accepted the SVP’s popular initiative ‘against mass immigration’ in 2014. This proposal demands the re-introduction of immigration quotas.

Immigrant cows climbing over our borders need to be stopped.5) A third factor leads me to think that the success of a populist party in Switzerland is surprising: its tools for direct democracy should shorten the gap between representatives and represented, thus restricting the institutional opportunity structure for populism to emerge. Indeed, when the people is really sovereign and plays an important role in a democracy, one would not expect the success of a party claiming to embody the peoples’ will. How do you explain this “Swiss paradox”?

3048760050_b0c74aebf6_zOne major aspect is that accepted popular initiatives are often not properly implemented. In several cases, the initiative backers have heavily criticized the federal authorities for flouting the popular will. These accusations relate to the fact that some constitutional amendments adopted by citizens have not been or only partially been translated into law so far, notably due to international constraints (such as bilateral treaties with the European Union and international law). It is precisely in this context that the SVP launched the above-mentioned popular initiative during the 2015 electoral campaign. This proposition basically states that the Swiss constitution should prevail over non-binding international law.

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Ueli Maurer gives a speech in 2013.

6) What lesson can we learn from the Swiss case? Do you think populism will constitute a permanent feature of democracy or rather diminish as soon as the economic crisis loosens?

Populism in Switzerland is not primarily caused by the economic crisis. Indeed, it is rather the opposite. The strong economic performance over recent years has caused a considerable amount of labour immigration that can be very effectively exploited politically by the radical right. Yet, I would like to underline that the main driving force of Swiss populism is cultural in nature as the radical right relies on the gulf that separates cosmopolitan elites from anti-immigrant and anti-European integration citizens. Hence, this phenomenon is very likely to persist over the next decades.

grüne7) We talked even too much about SVP/UDC. What about the left-wing parties in Switzerland (Social-Democrats, Greens)? Will they follow the (populist) example of the British Labour Party, or Podemos? Or they will rather confront the right by fighting on the ground of immigration?

Both parties of the moderate left cannot be classified as populist – neither in ideological terms nor with respect to their communication. They will continue to side with the moderate right to maintain open labour markets. A radicalization represents a high risk as the Greens and Social Democrats would lose their constituencies and probably not win much from the radical right. The far left has been traditionally very weak in Switzerland, even in the biggest cities as well as in the French- and Italian-speaking parts of the country. In addition, the macroeconomic situation makes a party like Podemos very unlikely to emerge.

19410428516_1b47f215a6_n8) Last but not least. Spiderman taught us that “with great power comes great responsibility”. Now, direct democratic tools are important instruments which allow the citizens to express their voice bypassing the problems typical of purely representative democracies. However, they can have consequences which are difficult to control. Do you think it would be unrealistic to adopt these instruments at the European level?

I would like to plead for a bottom-up approach. The best strategy is probably to develop direct democracy at the local level. This would allow citizens to make their first experiences with increased participation rights in a very familiar environment. From there, referendums and initiatives could spread to the national and the supranational domains.


Laurent Bernhard is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich. His PhD thesis focused on the campaign strategies adopted by political actors in the context of direct-democratic campaigns. Together with Marco Steenbergen, he currently leads a project that deals with populist communication in Western Europe in the framework of the research program NCCR Democracy.

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