Can new manifesto bolster the Social Democrats?

The Social Democrats want to return economic power to the people Keystone

The centre-left Social Democrats have just presented their new manifesto, the seventh since the party's creation in 1888.

This content was published on April 11, 2010 minutes

On the back of the financial crisis, the focus is no longer on breaking with capitalism but on making the economy more democratic.

Comparing it with the constitution, party president Christian Levrat described it as a text “of a fundamental nature”, which puts it “above the vagaries of everyday politics” and is capable of serving as reference for a generation.

Swiss socialists have always sought to change society. That is what former party president Hans-Jürg Fehr said on Wednesday in presenting the 50-page manifesto, the first for 30 years.

The only Swiss political party to publish such a document, the text includes a cardinal principle (regulate globalisation) and lists its fundamental values (liberty, justice and solidarity) and political guidelines.

The manifesto is essentially theoretical, yet it contains a certain number of concrete proposals, for example the launching of negotiations to join the European Union, reforming federalism, replacing obligatory military service with a system of voluntary recruitment and the setting up of a social policy focused on prevention of problems.

What's new?

The fight against big investors – a common theme of the previous six manifestos – hasn’t been forgotten. But the spirit that contributed to launching an initiative for a wealth tax (1974) or against the abuse of banking secrecy and the power of the banks (1978) – both rejected by voters – is less conspicuous.

Conforming to the party’s new slogan – “Yes” – which was adopted in June 2009, the focus is no longer on condemning capitalism and globalisation outright but on calling for a democratisation of the economy. In other words, privileging cooperation and participatory structures.

This idea, already formulated in the party’s last manifesto in 1982, generated a lot of heated reaction because it openly championed a “break” with capitalism.

Political scientist Georg Lutz judges the new version with caution.

“I struggle to work out what’s new and what’s changed,” he told “The views on globalisation, written in such an intellectual way, will be difficult to be accepted. However, it should be stressed that this policy document is important internally and that its main goal isn’t to mobilise voters.”

Bernard Degen, a historian and author of the Social Democratic Party’s entry in the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, thinks there’s nothing really revolutionary in this latest tract.

Making neo-liberalism and globalisation issues is merely a continuation of criticisms of real and financial economics made by the party for years, he said.

“Distrust of financial economics has never gone away at the heart of the Social Democrats. The language has simply been tweaked, like in the interwar period when the concept of economic democracy was preferred to that of class struggle because it provoked less anxiety.”

Highly specialised

Historically, the successive manifestos have had a “limited” impact on the concrete action undertaken by the party, according to Degen.

He added that if they had played a very important role in the 1950s for the orientation of militants and for positioning the socialists as an opposition party to the centre-right camp, the manifestos had subsequently become more of a way of presenting the party in the public sphere.

So will the new programme provoke passionate debates as Christian Levrat hopes – and as the paper on the economy did in 2006 and on public security in 2008? Degen doubts it.

“This one won’t lead to any fundamentally significant discussions. It’s a highly specialised text that takes into account all the expectations of the various leanings found at the heart of the Social Democrats,” he said.

Work it out

Regarding elections, the party must indeed to come to terms with several wings. From the one close to the unions to a more urban and liberal faction, capable of choosing equally between the Greens or other parties in the centre.

“To curb the erosion of votes, the Social Democrats tried veering to the left during the 1990s under Peter Bodenmann, but that didn’t prevent the Greens from making progress,” said Lutz. “And as for the strategy of opening up towards the centre, that never really worked.”

He said that because the party has become “the party for the middle to upper-middle classes”, they continue to lose out, as in the recent cantonal elections in Bern and Zurich.

Lutz added that against all expectations, the financial crisis had not obviously benefited the party from an electoral point of view.

New manifesto or not, Swiss socialists have their work cut out for the federal elections in 2011.

Carole Wälti, (Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)

7 manifestos

1888: The party’s first manifesto after the formation aimed to move control of the economy to the people

1904: In the context of strikes, the party developed a new programme steeped in Marxism. It advocated class struggle and ownership of business by workers.

1920:After World War One, the third programme was critical of imperialism and advocated strikes as a means of political struggle. It called for the supremacy of the proletariat.

1935: After the takeover of Germany by the Nazi Party, the Social Democrats wanted cut parts of their manifesto that would prevent linking with mainstream parties. It supported national defence and considered governing with the centre.

1959: Supporting anti-communism during the Cold War, the party abandoned its policy of opposition. Its fifth programme was marked by a rather humanistic character and called for only modest reforms.

1976: The party called for integration with new social movements in the wake of the 1974 recession and advocated for a break with capitalism.

1982: Not much changed.

2010: The party says capitalism must be transcended and be replaced by the democratisation of the economy.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of Switzerland)

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Social Democratic cabinet ministers

Ernst Nobs
1943-51: finance ministry
President in 1949

Max Weber
1951-53: finance ministry

Willy Spühler
1959-1970: post and railways, transport, energy, communications, foreign ministries
President in 1963, 1968

Hans-Peter Tschudi
1959-1973: interior ministry
President in 1965, 1970

Pierre Graber
1969-78: foreign ministry
President in 1975

Willi Ritschard
1973-83: transport, energy, communications, finance ministries
President in 1978

Pierre Aubert
1977-87: foreign ministry
President in 1983, 1987

Otto Stich
1983-95: finance ministry
President in 1988, 1994

René Felber
1987-93: foreign ministry
President in 1992

Ruth Dreifuss
1993-2002: interior ministry
President in 1999

Moritz Leuenberger
1995-present: transport, energy, communications ministries
President in 2001, 2006

Micheline Calmy-Rey
2002-present: foreign ministry
President in 2007

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