In the run-up to the parliamentary elections on October 18, Swiss political debate is not so much about relations with the European Union or the downside of the strong franc or climate change. Once again the refugee crisis is dominating the agenda, driven by the conservative right Swiss People’s Party.
“It’s a kind of ‘déjà vu’: the People’s Party is on the offensive, conducting a real electoral campaign, and the other parties are on the defensive, struggling to find ways to get a hearing for their issues.” Louis Perron, a political scientist at the University of Zurich, sums up the debate between the parties ahead of the federal elections.
This year too the People’s Party has succeeded in making its favourite topics – immigration and refugees – the focus of attention in the electoral campaign. This strategy has enabled it to capture votes since the 1990s, making it the major force in national politics. The one exception was in 2011, when the nuclear disaster at Fukushima diverted voters’ attention from the immigration issue for several months.
This time, international events are playing in favour of the People’s Party: the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and on Europe’s south flank has catapulted migration into the headlines all across the continent.
In the first half of this year 335,000 asylum requests were registered in EU/EFTA countries, a 68% increase over the same period in 2014. In Switzerland, with 11,800 requests, the increase has been 16%. The government department that oversees migration is forecasting 29,000 requests for the whole of 2015. This figure is well below the 47,500 record set in 1999 in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Moratorium on refugees?
It is still too much for the the People’s Party, which talks of “asylum chaos” and accuses Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga of failing to apply the legislation to put a stop to the influx of migrants.
The party proposed a motion in parliament in June calling for a “moratorium on asylum”: for one year, it wants the government to discontinue processing asylum requests and awarding refugee status, humanitarian visas and family reunions. If necessary, this moratorium is to be enforced at the country’s borders by the army.
According to the People’s Party, Switzerland needs to regain control of asylum policy and exit the Schengen/Dublin agreement, which, it says, has shown itself to be unworkable.
The party also rejects the proposed revision of the legislation on asylum – currently being studied by parliament – which is supposed to allow Switzerland to speed up procedures and centralise decision-making authority with the federal government, notably regarding the creation of reception centres.
In July the leadership of the People’s Party called on the cantonal and local sections of the party to “resist the opening of more and more asylum centres”.
For the People’s Party, it is necessary rather “to put the safety and the interests of the local population first”. For months in the party’s firing line, Sommaruga has hit back, saying the People’s Party has launched “an electoral campaign on the issue of asylum”.
The way she sees it, “with fear you can make a lot of noise”, but in Switzerland “there are many people who are not so much concerned about the 11,800 requests for asylum, but about the war going on in Syria and the millions of refugees”.
The offensive by the People’s Party has forced the other major parties to come up with some ideas of their own on the asylum issue.
For the president of the centre-right Radical Party, Philipp MüIler, the refugee crisis in Europe needs to be met by the creation under UN auspices of camps for refugees around the countries at war, like Syria and Iraq. The exiles arriving in Greece and Italy “should be sent back right away to these camps”, he says.
The centrist Christian Democratic Party has said it favours using the army to strengthen surveillance of migrants at the borders. It also wants a ban on people who are accommodated in reception centres working and sending remittances to their home countries. What is more, asylum seekers should not receive cash payments but food stamps.
Meanwhile, harsh criticism of the People’s Party campaign is being heard from the left.
“The People’s Party is adopting an inflammatory approach. It is trying to whip up xenophobia with a campaign of hysteria instead of supporting the new revision of the legislation on asylum which would speed up the procedures for processing the requests and restructure the management of the reception centres,” says Cesla Amarelle of the leftwing Social Democratic Party.
“The asylum issue cannot be resolved sending the army to the border, as the People’s Party would have us believe, but it can be relieved with a global approach, in consultation with the other European countries.”
Toning down debate
The debate on asylum looks like dominating the electoral campaign, forcing the other major parties to play the People’s Party’s game. But what can the others do to counter this?
“In this kind of scenario, the other parties have only two options, neither of them ideal,” Perron believes.
“First, for the centre-right, they have to copy the talk of the People’s Party, but at the risk of not doing it as well. As Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the extreme right Front National in France, once put it: ‘The French people vote for the original’. It’s the same thing in Switzerland: if you get into this kind of competitive game, you may lose out,” he said.
“Option number two is to respond to the offensive with a sober, rational way of talking, trying to explain things and make the debate less emotional. But there too you’re in a difficult situation – you’re on the defensive. The saying is: ‘If you’re explaining, you’re losing’.”
For Perron, the second option is the lesser of two evils. “If you have got yourself into such a situation, you have to de-dramatise the debate. As regards asylum, you have to explain that it really is a difficult problem but not a situation of chaos, as the People’s Party claims,” he said.
“But then you need to be able to turn the page and move on to other issues, like the energy shift or old-age pensions, which could take centre stage after the summer holidays.”
Revision of asylum law
The Senate had its say in June and now in September the House of Representatives has to approve the latest revision of Switzerland’s law on asylum, the third in the current legislative period. The government’s bill proposes to speed up the procedures for studying requests, which should now be decided within 140 days of being submitted. To ensure even-handed treatment, asylum seekers are to get free legal aid. Several decision-making powers are to be transferred to the federal level, including the creation and management of reception centres. Construction of five major centres is planned – these should be able to accommodate about 5,000 asylum seekers each. The new law on asylum is supported by the main parties, but not the People’s Party, which has proposed about 70 amendments and is threatening to push for a referendum if the bill is approved as is.
Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee, swissinfo.ch