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Home Opinion The SVP: A success story of right-wing populism
Swizerland • Populism • Consociationalism

The SVP: A success story of right-wing populism

Damir Skenderovic - 21 January 2013

Enjoying significant influence over the Swiss political agenda, the success of SVP demonstrates the dangers of integrating right-wing populist parties into the mainstream

In Switzerland, the 6th of December 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of a popular vote that rejected the country’s membership of the European Economic Area (EEA). The vote was a turning point in Swiss politics, as well as in the history of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). The decision at the ballot effectively sealed the debate on issues of European integration for the next two decades, resulting in an almost unanimous rejection among political parties and the public in Switzerland of the idea of joining the European Union. As a recent survey shows, only six per cent of the people polled see the country’s membership of the EU as a priority, while 63 per cent opt for continuing the path of bilateral agreements with the EU.

The 1992 vote was also the starting point for the electoral and political success of the SVP, which, with Christoph Blocher as a wealthy and sedulous populist leader, had been the driving force in the campaign against EEA membership. In fact, the party’s electoral record makes the SVP the most successful right-wing populist party in Europe. After fifty years of stagnation in national elections, the SVP increased its share of the vote in the National Council elections from 11.9 percent (25 seats) in 1991, to 22.5 percent (44 seats) in 1999, and 28.9 percent (62 seats) in 2007 – an increase unique in Swiss electoral history since 1919 - before support for the party slightly decreased to 26.6 percent (54 seats) in 2011.

Like other right-wing populist parties in Europe, the SVP’s “winning formula” consists of linking nationalist and exclusionist demands in immigration and foreign policy with neo-liberal and anti-state positions in economic and taxation policy. However, as recent electoral surveys show, a large majority of SVP voters are primarily attracted to the party’s restrictive positions on immigration and asylum, its identity politics on questions of preserving Swiss traditions and national sovereignty, as well as its opposition to EU membership.

In terms of social profile, the SVP electorate has become much more varied over time, - anchored in almost every social group imaginable - a reflection of the party’s overall gain in votes since the early 1990s. The party continues to rely on its traditional voters from rural regions, who have tended to be male, from the old middle class, and often self-employed workers, but it also registers considerable growth among the labour force, from voters in lower and middle income groups, and those with a low or average level of formal education. Since the party expanded enormously in the 1990s, by increasing the number of cantonal sections from fourteen to twenty-six, it is now represented in all cantons and finds support among residents of urban areas, as well as among Catholics who used to be a small minority in the party’s electorate.

Unlike many of the other right-wing populist parties that have emerged in Europe since the early 1990s, the SVP is not a new party. Its origins go back to the inter-war period, when farmers’ parties were founded in agrarian cantons of Protestant, German-speaking Switzerland and were pretty soon accepted by the country’s bourgeois parties as coalition partners in government. Although, as is the case in the whole of post-war Western Europe, the number of people making their living from agriculture has dramatically decreased in Switzerland since World War II – a change which has seen the traditional social basis of the SVP almost disappear – the party continues to refer in its narratives and political iconography to peasantry and agrarian life. At party meetings, in public speeches and political campaigns, the party likes to evoke the rural world and farmers as steadfast representations of national authenticity and as a highly symbolic, historically tested bulkhead in the fight against any kinds of foreign influence. Such fabrication of national imagery in order to define the country’s national identity and demarcate from the “other” serves the party as a symbolic and ideological fount of nationalist and exclusionist ideas when it comes to questions of European integration and policies of immigration and citizenship.

On the other hand, the SVP has succeeded in becoming a highly modern party by forcefully improving its party apparatus and structures, and by so doing, the party has contributed to what can be coined the “Europeanisation” of the Swiss party system. Traditionally, the organisational structure of most Swiss parties is rather loose and the degree of professionalisation is fairly low; they have relatively few resources in terms of full-time staff and finances, and the public funding of parties is virtually non-existent. In contrast, the SVP has succeeded in improving its party organisation, in gathering significant financial resources, and in professionalising its political activities, most effectively in terms of political campaigning and public relations. The controversial and provocative style of its campaigning and rhetoric also went along with the growing mediatisation of Swiss politics since the 1990s, when personalisation and sensationalism became increasingly common in the media coverage of politics. Moreover, the SVP achieved a “nationalisation” of the party, rather unusual in the Swiss federalist political system, by profiling a common political agenda and unifying the federal Swiss electoral and referendum campaigns.

The key reasons for the SVP’s success story, however, lay in the country’s post-war tradition of right-wing populism and the openness of its political system. It is often forgotten that Swiss right-wing populist parties assume a pioneering role in Europe. Since the 1960s, seven such parties, for a long time mainly splinter-parties, have succeeded in entering the national parliament. In the 1990s, most of these were ousted by the SVP, which then became the dominant force at the right-wing margin.

An even more important factor is perhaps the direct democracy that has been used by right-wing populist parties as a key institutional opportunity structure. Direct democracy helps these parties not only to mobilise constituencies and strengthen the parties’ internal cohesion and collective identity, but also to set the country’s political agenda and themes of public debates, and to exert pressure on policy-making processes. Finally, with its “historical capital” as a long-time member of federal, cantonal and local executives, the SVP is not perceived as a pariah party by the established parties, including the Social Democrats. Therefore, the system of Swiss consociational democracy, in which the integration of political and social forces is central, represents the basis for the integrative strategy towards the SVP. While this differs from the demarcation strategy of a cordon sanitaire applied towards right-wing populist parties in many European countries, in Switzerland it has resulted in the SVP putting its stamp on a range of policy issues.

Damir Skenderovic is professor of general and Swiss contemporary history at the University of Fribourg

This article forms parts of the Policy Network/Barrow Cadbury Trust project on “Populism, Extremism and the Mainstream”.
This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Swizerland , Populism , Consociationalism , European Economic Area , EEA , Swiss People's Party , Schweizerische Volkspartei , SVP , Democratic Union of the Centre , Unione Democratica di Centro , Union démocratique du centre , UDC , EU , European Union , Christoph Blocher , Europe , Elections , Neoliberal , Neoliberalism , Neo-liberal , Neoliberalism , Anti-state , Tax , Immigration , Nationalism , Rght-wing , Social Democratic Party of Switzerland , Swiss Socialist Party , Sozialdemokratische Partei der Schweiz , SP , Parti socialiste suisse , PS , Partito Socialista Svizzero , Partida Socialdemocrata de la Svizra , Euroscepticism ,


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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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