Ballot box campaign spat leaves public cold

The campaign used the heads of the finance and the justice ministers to make their point Keystone/SBG

The use of controversial photographs has livened up the political campaign ahead of a nationwide vote on reforms to the state disability insurance scheme.

This content was published on June 6, 2007

The provocative images used on postcards reflect the increasing polarisation in Swiss politics, but experts doubt whether the clash of the parties will boost turnout significantly at the June 17 ballot.

The series of juxtaposed pictures of cabinet ministers in wheelchairs, with a walking stick or amputated limb, was launched by the Trade Union Federation in April.

It prompted some harsh reaction, but the controversy has since died down and appears to have had no major impact on voter intentions and expected turnout, as the latest poll shows.

Union officials acknowledged that their campaign had upset some of their members and prompted conflicting reactions among the disabled.

"It makes you think that all of us could become disabled," said the federation's president Paul Rechsteiner, who is also a parliamentarian for the centre-left Social Democratic Party.

Others, including cabinet members as well as public relations specialists, described the campaign as "in bad taste", "reactionary", "an own goal" or even "political suicide".


Critics warned against pursuing a style successfully used by the opposing political camp, the rightwing Swiss People's Party. On various occasions in the past, the party had resorted to blatantly defamatory posters, notably to win voters over for its anti-foreigner policies and plans to crack down on crime.

Andreas Ladner, a politics expert at Lausanne's Graduate Institute of Public Administration, says the use of explicit imagery, which appeals to people's emotions, is neither new nor specific to one political party.

"What is new is that the People's Party has scored a number of victories recently with such provocations. Compared with campaigns in other countries, this is relatively tame," he said.

Ladner added that provocation is part of the game to influence voters. He pointed out political posters which made rich industrialists the targets - depicting them as capitalist pigs.

"I hope this style is not going to get out of hand. But the campaign has certainly achieved its aim: people talk about it."

Polarised and populist

For Hans Hirter, a political scientist at Bern University, the latest controversial postcard campaign is indicative of a trend in Swiss politics over the past decade.

"It shows not only the growing polarisation between the right and the left but also a move towards populism."

But he is sceptical whether this trend will continue for much longer and believes Swiss voters will sooner or later get tired of the defamatory and provocative tone of the campaigns.

Whether or not it will be possible to turn back to a more matter-of-fact style of political debate is not clear, according to Hirter.

Another question is whether a change in public opinion will allow the two main political parties in the middle of the political spectrum, the Radicals and the Christian Democrats, to regain their old strength.


Hirter says a campaign which panders to the public's instincts does not necessarily lead to a higher turnout at the ballot box.

"Voter participation depends largely on the issue at stake," he says.

Opinion polls ahead of the vote appear to back his view.

A survey commissioned by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation forecasts a turnout of 44 per cent, which is just average in long-term comparison, said the gfs.bern research and polling institute on Wednesday.

An initial poll carried out shortly after the controversy over the trade union picture campaign found that fewer than one in three citizens planned to take part in the ballot on a planned reform of the disability scheme.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser and Jean-Michel Berthoud

In brief

The reform of the disability scheme foresees spending cuts and a reduction in the number of beneficiaries.

Parliament approved the cuts, but two small groups representing the disabled - backed by centre-left parties and the trade unions - collected enough signatures to challenge the decision to a nationwide vote.

Supporters of the reform say cuts are needed to rescue to scheme from financial ruin, currently at SFr12 billion ($9.9 billion) and crack down on abuses of disability benefits.

Opponents argue the reform is at the expense of the weaker members of society who have no real chance of integrating into the labour market.

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GfS opinion poll

44% of those interviewed said they would approve the reform of the disability benefits.

34% said they would vote against it, while 22% remained undecided.

The poll by the gfs.bern polling institute was carried out among 1,219 citizens between May 28 and June 2.

A first survey from the beginning of May found 43% saying yes, 32% saying no and 25% undecided.

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