Debate over security and crime gets a new spin

President Christian Levrat defends the paper on security Keystone

Switzerland's centre-left Social Democrats are taking a more pragmatic approach on security and the fight against crime because they want to give the debate a new spin.

This content was published on October 27, 2008 minutes

Their new position, adopted by party delegates at a meeting over the weekend, is in line with those of their counterparts in other European countries, says political scientist Georg Lutz from Lausanne University.

The Social Democrats – Switzerland's second largest political group after the rightwing People's Party – came out in favour of expelling foreigners convicted of serious crimes.

It also approved the use of video surveillance in public spaces where necessary and called for more police and border guards.

The controversial policy paper was revised several times since a first draft was made public in June.

Public opinion is divided over the perceived policy change. Some see it as a step in the right direction to finally acknowledge reality and the concerns of many citizens about crime.

However, of its critics, some argue it is only a half-hearted effort while others say there is nothing to be gained from joining in the debate.

swissinfo: How much of a sea change is the adoption of the paper on public security for the party?

Georg Lutz: It is the first time that the party has taken a stance on something it appeared to avoid in the past. The standard answer used to be that security concerns were exaggerated and no proper answers were given to concrete questions.

The party now has gone beyond that and adopted a paper which could be used as a policy agenda.

The traditional and strategically oriented view has been so far that there is nothing to gain from a wider debate on public security and it would only play into the hands of the rightwing Swiss People's Party.

It is a tricky subject for the Social Democrats because it creates internal conflicts – something a party tries to avoid.

swissinfo: Was the decision more than a way to win back supporters who have walked away and voted for the right wing?

G.L.: The Social Democrats had to act after their defeat in last year's parliamentary elections. They had to show that they too have answers to the concerns of many citizens.

No doubt the party would prefer to talk about social issues, but the political agenda was set by other parties and they made security and criminal foreigners a priority.

But I doubt whether the party will focus on this issue in its campaigns - there are plenty of other topics. Not least the global financial crisis and the economic slowdown. It stands to gain much more with these issues.

swissinfo: Is there a risk that the Social Democrats will opt for a hardline policy on security and follow the People's Party stance as alleged by the leftwing critics?

G.L.: It is a fine line to provide answers and avoid a purely populist approach - as some rightwing parties tend to - but prove that you take concerns seriously.

The party has previously come in for criticism for not taking security issues seriously or even ignoring them. To some extent the party had no choice but to counter its critics.

swissinfo: How credible is a statement by the party leadership who argued it has always been aware of the security concerns but it has failed to communicate its policy?

G.L.: I think the party was trying to avoid the issue and taking a clear stand because security is a divisive issue.

Two party members from Zurich who campaigned on security issues for the parliamentary elections were heavily criticised from within the party and they both won a seat in the House of Representatives.

The novelty is that the party leadership has launched a debate on security.

swissinfo: Where do Switzerland's Social Democrats stand in comparison with the security policy of other social democratic parties in Europe?

G.L.: The Social Democrats in Switzerland have been more to the left on security than their counterparts, who have been more willing to tackle security and open up towards the political centre.

It appears that the Switzerland's Social Democrats are now moving away from a diehard ideological approach and have opted for more pragmatism.

But the debate over security and crime is not the same everywhere. There are countries where the populist right wing does not dominate the debate, but where it is much broader - for instance in Scandinavia.

But it seems the strategy of Switzerland's Social Democrats is quite clever. They want to give the debate their own spin.

swissinfo-interview: Urs Geiser

In brief

The rightwing Swiss People's Party has called for the automatic expulsion of foreigners convicted of crimes or engaged in welfare fraud.

In February sufficient signatures to call a nationwide vote were handed in. The proposal attracted massive criticism from other parties, the government and Federal Commission against Racism.

The centre-left Social Democrats were the biggest losers among the main political parties during last year's parliamentary elections. They dropped nearly 4% to take 19.5% of the vote, 9.5% behind the People's Party.

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