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swiss politics Switzerland – a test case for European populism?

Mainstream debates usually focus on how to halt or combat ‘the rise of populism’. But what if the solution was to let them talk, let them incite, and – when it comes to direct democracy – let them trigger votes as they please?

That’s according to German journalist and author Ralf Schuler, who argues that populists must be included in the political conversation, and that they could represent a way to re-invigorate democracy.

In any case, ignoring them doesn’t work, he says, especially in the digital age: “populists simply move online into their own spaces, where they build their own truths”. 

direct democracy series Switzerland – ‘a populist country in the best sense of the word’

Is “populism” something to be stamped out? German journalist Ralf Schuler, who recently wrote the book “Let us be populist”, thinks not.

Political instability in western democracies over the last century has been routinely linked to populism. The search for a “cure” for what the establishment perceives as an abuse of democratic institutions is even older.  

Why is the debate so difficult and so enduring?  

One problem is that demagoguery lies in the ear of the beholder. Populism is a tricky term to pin down. Since it can’t really be measured, what we’re often left with is a smorgasbord of definitions, most of them agreeing it amounts to a political style pitting a morally bankrupt “elite” against an oppressed, ignored or defrauded “people”. 

As for policies, critics say populists promise overly simplistic solutions for complex problems like immigration, cultural diversity and societal change; populists say the word is a catch-all term used by elites to dismiss arguments they don’t like. 

But beyond semantics, the debate mattersexternal link: IDEA, a Swedish research group, finds that periods in which populists manage to actually get into government are periods of decline on many aspects of democratic health like freedom of expression or civil society engagement. 

This is one such period: although “peak populism” may have been reached, according to a European Commission research paperexternal link, the overall situation is that such parties have more than tripled their support on the continent over the past two decades. 

And, so, even if the thought of governing with groups like the National Rally in France or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands probably sounds frightening to many centrist or moderate folk, there may not be a choice. 

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The Swiss example 

As usual when it comes to politics, Switzerland is somewhat unique when it comes to this debate: while the country is often seen as a model of stability and the world champion of (direct) democracy, it’s also highly populist, and has been for some time. 

The past three decades have seen a sharp rise in the success of populist movements in the country, mainly the right-wing People’s Party, whose parliamentary strength grew from 12% in 1991 to a peak of 29.4% in 2015. 

Despite the big gains in last year’s elections made by the Greens – who have themselves been labelled populist in the past –, the People’s Party remains the strongest group in parliament in 2020. 

How has the country managed to avoid the political instability and inflamed rhetoric that’s associated with populist groups in other western countries? Direct democracy might play a role, experts says.  

On one hand, direct democracy actually encourages populism by allowing ideas onto the agenda that would be blocked under a different system. Citizens can propose legislation and vote up to four times a year on initiatives, and can thus bypass the vested interest of elites.  

But direct democracy also tempers populism for the same reason, by constantly asking for citizens’ input in the political process. Swiss voters, used to regular ballots and deliberation, have lots of chances to make their voices heard: and so, issues “rise to the surface faster, more clearly, and must be solved”, as analyst Claude Longchamp puts it. 

Elsewhere, problems might go unaddressed and fester below the surface, says Schuler, the German author. “[Populist] movements take up issues left untackled by established parties, and “attract people from the margins susceptible to their arguments”, he says. 

Lastly, of course, there is the ‘magic formula’, which means that the Swiss government is always made up of a consensual, representative roundtable from the biggest parties in the country – regardless of what they stand for. 

And so, while populist groups elsewhere are vilified or ostracized, in Switzerland, the People’s Party is a long-standing, legitimate participant in government, where it works pragmatically with the others – rather than fuming from beyond a sanitary cordon.

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