"People’s Party needs a change at the top"

People's Party strongman Christoph Blocher answers questions after failing in his bid to be elected to the Senate on Sunday Reuters

The Swiss People’s Party needs to look for new leaders after the party's elite failed to get elected to the Senate on Sunday, according to political scientist Michael Hermann.

This content was published on November 28, 2011 - 21:34
Sophie Douez,

The rightwing party had entered this year’s elections with a much-trumpeted strategy of fielding “heavyweight” candidates in a bid to increase its representation in the Senate.

The humiliating losses saw chairman Toni Brunner fail in his second effort to be elected to the chamber while former minister and party strongman Christoph Blocher lost his bid by more than 100,000 votes in Zurich. In total, the party now has two fewer seats in the Senate.

The losses add to its lacklustre performance in October’s general election, where the party vote dropped from 28.9 per cent to 26.6 per cent.

The results have cast doubt over the party’s quest for a coveted second cabinet seat. They have also thrown into sharp relief its strategy of favouring polarising candidates and threatening outright opposition in a political system where achieving consensus is king.

Zurich University political scientist Michael Hermann spoke to about the future of Switzerland’s largest political party and its leadership team. The party began this election year expecting to win an unprecedented 30 per cent of the vote; instead it lost significant ground to new centre parties and failed to have its big guns elected to the Senate. What went wrong?

Michael Hermann: I think they overestimated their position. We had this initiative about foreign criminals and they misinterpreted this success as a success for the party, but it was only a success for the issue. There are those who think that the People’s Party brings up a lot of important issues but they don’t think this party – with this style – should rule the country. I think a lot of people have had enough of this polarisation and this aggressive style of politics. Christoph Blocher says the Senate results are a “logical consequence of an anti-SVP coalition”. Was there a push from other parties to unite against the SVP?

M.H.: Not more so than before. This is the standard argument from the People’s Party that it’s the political class, the other parties are all against the SVP but actually it was a big majority of people who didn’t vote for the SVP. That’s problematic because the People’s Party always pushes the strong argument that they have the people on their side. Where does the party go from here? Will it have to change its strategy?

M.H.: They have to and they are already doing it. They have already switched their strategy concerning the cabinet. Two years ago they said they would only put forward candidates from the hard line and if you don’t elect these people we are going into opposition. All these threats have now vanished. The psychological dimension of their success is gone. The middle parties are not afraid of them anymore.

I think the SVP is in a difficult position because they could become a normal conservative party, making deals with the others, being less polarising, but if they do that they would lose a part of the unique selling proposition they had before. They were the one party on the right which was not consensual but was determined in its position. If they become a regular party, then there is a possibility that they will lose another part of their still strong base. Has it gone as far as it can? What would it have to do now to win the fabled 30 per cent of the vote?

M.H.: One thing they need is to have a strong leader. All the rightwing parties elsewhere in Europe have strong leaders. If they don’t have a strong leader, then they won’t be able to gain back the ground they have lost, and it is clear Christoph Blocher can’t play this role anymore. Do you think these results will lead to a change within the party leadership?

M.H.: I don’t know what the alternatives are. A big problem for the party is that it has been so focused on Christoph Blocher and his position and ideology, that there is almost nobody who is a bit more independent than him who could lead the party. They have a lot of people, a lot of members, but they don’t have a lot of strong, independent-thinking people. Has the strategy of “no” – in particular, using initiatives to push radical propositions – run its course?

M.H.: It would be foolish to think that in the future, these initiatives and referendums from the People’s Party won’t have a chance anymore, because things can change very quickly. There are still a lot of people who vote for them, but there is more of a change in that more people don’t want this style of politics. Does the party need to favour more balanced candidates in order to get elected to the important seats in the Senate and Cabinet?

M.H.: That’s surely one thing that they need to do because they won’t have a chance any more with a polarising figure. Somebody like [Defense Minister] Ueli Maurer, who was known as a hardliner when he was elected, wouldn’t get elected to the cabinet nowadays. They need to promote more consensual, moderate people, but even if they do that I’m not sure they will get the second seat [in the cabinet] because the mindset of the parliament has completely changed.

For years the SVP said it would only offer a certain kind of candidate, so if they change their position, it’s not very credible. They have to prove that they are really ready to switch their position and have another style of politics. If I were on the other side I wouldn’t just give them the seats for free now.

Election results 2011

House of Representatives

People's Party: 54 seats (-8)
Social Democrats: 46 (+3)

Radical Party: 30 (-5)
Christian Democrats: 28 (-3)
Green Party: 15 (-5)
Liberal Greens: 12 (+9)
Conservative Democrats: 9 (+9)


People’s Party: 5 seats (-2)

Social Democrats: 11 seats (+3)

Christian Democrats: 12 seats (-2)

Radical Party: 11 seats (-1)

Green Party: 2

Liberal Greens: 2

Conservative Democrats: 1

Independent: 1

(A final vote for canton Solothurn will take place December 4.)

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Swiss People's Party

The party was formed in 1971 from the merger of the Swiss Farmers, Trade and Citizens’ Party and the Democratic Parties of the Cantons of Glarus and Graubünden.

With a 25.6 per cent share of the vote, it is Switzerland’s strongest party. The party result in the parliamentary elections in 2007 is the best that any single party has ever achieved. 

The People’s Party says it is firmly committed to the concerns of its voters. The party stands for an independent, neutral Switzerland, a streamlined state, low taxes, a strong location for business with secure jobs and effective prevention of crime and of abuse of asylum and the social security system.

Determined to increase its power to 30 per cent of the vote – including more seats in the senate and an all-important second seat in the cabinet (elections for which will be held on December 14) – the party went into the 2011 elections calling for quotas on immigration from the EU, “no” to EU membership, tougher penalties for criminals and a strong army.

But its avowed strategy of fielding party heavyweights in key senate races failed, with Christoph Blocher, Toni Brunner, Caspar Baadar, Adrian Amstutz and Ulrich Giezendanner among others failing to win.

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