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Fact checking How environmentally friendly are Swiss political parties?

Electronic screen showing vote results in the senate

The result of votes in parliament are an indication to what extent the parties live up to their claims about Switzerland's environmental policy. 

(Keystone/Anthony Anex)

Less than four months before the Swiss parliamentary elections, the country’s main political parties are busy trying to show how much they care about the environment. Where do they really stand?

A report by the Swiss Public Television RTS took a closer look at the legislative efforts of parliamentarians and their interests in ecological issues.

Two main political parties, previously not really known for their green sensibilities, recently made public statements committing to environmental causes.

“Ecological issues are part of our DNA,” said the president of the centre-right Radical Party in an interview with RTS earlier this month. For its part, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party distributed about three million copies of a free newspaper focusing on alleged ‘climate hysteria’, referring to recent student strikes and other movements related to climate change.

The Smartvoteexternal link online voting advice application asked candidates running in the October parliamentary elections whether they are in favour of increasing the budget for environmental protection projects and urban planning.

As expected, candidates from left-wing and environmental parties have unanimously come out in favour of the financial support since 2011. The responses from centrist and right-wing candidates are mixed.

chart 1

Chart showing percentage of parliamentarians in favour of spending cuts (in %)

Among the Radical Party candidates, more than half wanted to slash the environmental protection budget in 2015, when the last parliamentary elections were held.

This means that the members of the Radical Party currently holding office have been less willing to spend money on environmental issues than their predecessors in the four-year term beginning in 2011. That was the year of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

In other words, environmental concerns and public support for environmental causes had weakened by 2015. Is this a typical cause-and-effect relationship 

Adapting or staying firm

So why have environmental issues come to the forefront again? Christian Lüscher, a vice-president of the Radical Party and parliamentarian from Geneva, dismisses any notion of opportunism by his party. He says that “all politicians adapt to the concerns of the population in tune with historical developments”.

Lüscher acknowledges that policy changes are sometimes difficult.

“Let’s be honest about it. It took a major effort within the party to bring about this change,” he said. “We carried out an opinion poll among our grassroots supporters. It was a bit of a wake-up call to realise that environmental issues are a key public concern.”

Switzerland’s biggest group in terms of seats in the House of Representatives, the People’s Party, has remained committed to its environmental policy since 2011. Right-wing parliamentarians have consistently demanded spending cuts on environmental issues.

According to the party’s free newspaper, no public money should be used to solve environmental problems.

“The People’s Party has to fight in particular the ideologically motivated climate hysteria,” says People’s Party parliamentarian Roger Köppel. “I’m all in favour of environmental protection but I don’t support the Green Marxists,” he said during a recent parliamentary debate.

Motions and requests

Voting behaviour is one way of gauging the extent of a party’s commitment to environmental issues. Parliamentary interventions, including formal and informal calls on the government for action, are another indicator of a party’s level of environmental engagement.

Members of the Green and the Liberal Green parties are the most active politicians in terms of the number of interventions linked to environmental issues, with about one in three related to an environmental cause.

The ratio dropped to one in ten for parliamentarians from the left-wing Social Democrats and centrist parties. For the right-wing People’s Party, 7% of motions and questions posed by its parliamentarians concerned ecology.

chart 2

Chart with parliamentary interventions by political parties

It is the Radical Party – traditionally close to the business community – which has been least active on environmental policy matters, as the chart above shows. Only one in 20 interventions was related to the topic.

Lüscher brushes off these findings. “Politics can’t be measured in the number of motions or requests handed in,” he argues.

He points out that the real political work is done in parliamentary committees and by consulting with and involving other political players. 

“Motions pertain more to political window dressing. The Radical Party is not in the business of that,” he claims.

Statistical data appear to disprove Lüscher. Radical Party parliamentarians handed in nearly 1,000 total requests, motions and questions to parliament between 2015 and 2018.

Only Social Democrat and People’s Party parliamentarians were more prolific, but every other group was less active than the Radicals. And it certainly does not help explain why the Radicals showed so little interest in environmental issues.

Last weekend, delegates approved a change in the party’s climate and environmental policy to include series of political measures, notably the introduction of a CO2 tax on petrol and diesel, zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and a levy on plane tickets in the party platform ahead of the October parliamentary elections.

Parliamentary elections 2019 Four parties stand out ahead of national elections

We take a closer look at the success of the Greens, the Radical-Liberals, the Social Democrats and the Liberal Greens in cantonal polls.


Adapted from French/urs, swissinfo.ch

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