Almost everywhere in the world, the state of the economy is seen as the decisive factor determining the outcome of elections. Not so in Switzerland, where the key battleground is bilateral relations with the European Union.
‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ The famous phrase, coined during the campaign for the 1992 presidential elections in the United States, seems to capture an essential truth of politics.
In times of economic health, the ruling parties usually keep the upper hand. If times are tough, then the opposition comes out top at the ballot box. Abrupt turnarounds in the economy are generally seen as explanations for changes at a political level.
Banking crises are special cases as they not only lead to a change of government, but also erode the trust of citizens in political institutions, and are instrumental in triggering civil protests.
The recent political shifts in Europe came against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, which began in 2008. Populist movements, both of the right and the left, have emerged and target immigration policy as well as government spending cuts.
And though EU unemployment figures are down, it’s not clear if the traditional party system has hit rock bottom yet; the answer may come in May with scheduled elections to the European parliamentexternal link.
However, this European economic perspective does not hugely help in understanding the dramatic changes to Switzerland’s party political system over the past three decades.
Indeed, the tipping point was not the onset of the financial crisis in 2007 but rather the nationwide vote on Switzerland joining the European Economic Area – a kind of halfway house to full EU membership – back in 1992.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party led the fight against the idea and won, as a result growing to become the largest political party in Switzerland with just under 30% of the vote in elections to the House of Representatives in 2015.
At the same time, a counter movement, made up of leftwing and Green parties, and occasionally centrist groups, sprang up in larger cities, mainly in the German-speaking part of the country.
With this development in urban areas, political debates became more polarised. Since 1992, it has become a rare exception for the political left and right to seek common ground on basic issues. Ideological polarisation is the new normal.
Is the Swiss case rooted in anything larger? Perhaps. About a month ago, US researchers Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart published their new book, Cultural Backlash, which offers some ground-breaking insights.
According to the authors, everything began with the prolonged economic boom during the decades after the Second World War. Along with the education revolution of the 1960s, new generations emerged whose values differed vastly from those of their parents.
This set in motion a fundamental cultural development – “socially liberal”, in the words of the researchers. A movement characterised by demands for women's rights, everyday ecology, and self-development in a society no longer defined as local and self-contained.
The ‘cultural backlash’, however, comes as a reaction to such sea-changes: previously dominant social groups, perceiving their majority as under threat, launch a socially conservative counter-movement.
Top priority for such conservative groups is the return to a system which bases individual success on economic achievement, something linked to the traditional family ideal, the classic separation of roles between men and women, and the importance of marriage as a foundation.
The social-conservatives despise a blend of cultures which they see as threatening the privileges of the preeminent resident society. They want strong men to lead the fight against mixed cultures – even at the cost of limiting democratic rights.
Theory fits Switzerland
This is the theory according to Norris and Inglehart. But does it apply to Switzerland?
Let’s go back for a moment to the 1991 parliamentary elections to explain what happened.
The government waited just a day after elections to announce that it was seeking Swiss membership of the European Economic Area, an organisation that it later described as a “training camp for full EU membership”.
The announcement caused an outcry from conservative opponents, fuelling the controversy in the run up to the 1992 vote on the EEA treaty and beginning a rift that has continued with extraordinary intensity until today.
Two separate movements were born: one Euro-optimistic and the other Euro-sceptic, with both stuck in political deadlock. In stark terms, the Swiss government is mostly favourable in its policy towards the EU, while the mood among the population is mostly opposed.
And since then, as mentioned previously, the political and cultural polarisation of the country has become geographic, with urban socially liberal areas (mainly in the west) standing against rural socially conservative areas (mainly in the east).
Cantonal elections in recent years have confirmed the divide, which is not about the economy – Switzerland is rich enough to search for compromise on such issues. The split is cultural.
Where will October’s parliamentary elections take Switzerland?
At a global level, it seems that social conservativism will prevail at least as long as Donald Trump is US president. Elections to the European parliament in May are unlikely to lead to a major shift towards the socially-liberal parties and policies pushed by the French president, Emanuel Macron.
My appraisal for Switzerland remains open. The election of two women to the government last December has pushed socially liberal policies well into the camp of the centre-right. The revival of the environmentalist movement following a series of climate protests can also be seen in this light.
But it will by no means decide the national elections in October.
The unsolved issue of Switzerland’s ties with Brussels remain on the table. This issue led to the onset of the cultural backlash in 1992. It will likely continue to be a key factor.
About the author
Claude Longchamp is a senior political expert and one of Switzerland's most experienced and highly-regarded political scientists and analysts.
He founded the polling and research institute GfS Bernexternal link, which he headed until his retirement. Longchamp has analysed and commented on votes and elections on SRF public Swiss television for 30 years.
Longchamp also runs two German-language blogs: Zoonpoliticonexternal link on political issues and Stadtwanderer with contributions about historical topics.
This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch. Contributors, including outside authors frequently share their views. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of swissinfo.ch.
Adapted from German; urs/dos, swissinfo.ch