Switzerland as a test case for European populism

In Switzerland, populism thrives – but under control

The smiling face of populism? A People's Party mascot, February 2019. © Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

What does rising populism mean for the future of democracy? In Switzerland, at least, populist and democratic ideals seem to thrive hand in hand. 

This content was published on July 16, 2019 - 11:00

Based on many indicators of what constitutes the term, Switzerland is one of the most populist countries in Europe. The right-wing, anti-immigration People’s Party is the biggest in the country, anti-elitist sentiment is strong, and the system of direct democracy can lead to controversial outbursts of popular anger.

Yet Switzerland is also – on almost all indicators – a model of political stability, economic prosperity, quality of life, multiculturalism (25% of residents are foreigners), and general democratic health.

Is this a paradox?

It might seem so to those looking in from outside. But the particular brand of “Alpine populism” in Switzerland is built on various aspects that set it apart from other versions of the phenomenon spreading across Europe.

Peaks and troughs

The first is historical timing. Claude Longchamp, a political analyst from the GfS research group in Bern (and a regular contributor to reckons that Switzerland is currently on the trough-bound side of the populist wave just now cresting in countries like France, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland.

“We’ve already had these discussions,” he says. “Populism is not on the rise here as it is in other countries where, since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, we’ve seen a growth in a new type of populism eager to conquer the political centre-ground.”

One Swiss peak came around 2007, he says, when People’s Party doyen Christoph Blocher was a member of government, fomenting movements that would lead to a vote to expel criminal foreigners in 2010. Another wave crested in the period 2013-2015, when fallout from financial crisis in the surrounding eurozone countries influenced a more inward-looking Swiss electorate to curb EU immigration.

Since then, however, the influence of the People’s Party and its populist views has been stagnating, he says. Local election results and several vote defeats have put conservatives on the back foot. Predictions for October’s parliamentary elections also foresee Green gains – but not the populist gains seen recently in European elections.


Why the out-of-joint timing between Switzerland and the rest of Europe? Longchamp says part of it is simply cyclical; peaks and troughs of dissent are part and parcel of democracies, where stability depends on the ability of the prevailing system to satisfy enough people not to turn to extreme alternatives.

Seen in this light, while Europe was just plunging headlong into its savage financial crisis in 2007, Switzerland was already going through its populist growing pains; a decade later, as EU democracies see the political fruits of stagnation and meagre prospects, the Swiss economy watches happily from its Alpine summit.

But that’s not all. More recently, the growth of a reactionary, progressive movement in Switzerland has also helped to shape a counter-narrative to the extremely effective PR strategy of the People’s Party.

Operation Libero, for example, recently credited by Britain’s Guardian newspaperExternal link as “beating populism”: an urban- and liberal group who mobilised in the past four years to fight against several right-wing initiatives.

They won all their battles – including another attempt at criminal foreigner expulsion – on a strategy of high-energy, narrative-shifting campaigns and are now backing candidates in this October’s parliamentary elections.

And if the Guardian’s praise might have been overplayed, Operation Libero’s liberal ideology, combined with its bouncy and populist-in-its-own-way communication style, has surely helped to “change the narrative” somewhat, as the newspaper put it.

Meanwhile, youth engagement, climate concerns (which People’s Party leaders have labelled a “fad”), and a shift in the political leanings of urban centres in Switzerland (as opposed to the more conservative rural regions) may also have helped to take the wind out of conservative populists’ sails.

An Operation Libero colourful campaign – here promoting marriage rights for all. Keystone / Peter Schneider

Direct democracy’s role

Of course this doesn’t mean Switzerland is free from the trend. According to a 2016 research paperExternal link, the country still presents “favourable conditions for growing populism”, including the traditionally conservative and isolationist nature of its social geography and a media system characterised by concentrated ownership.

And there’s the direct democratic system, an instrument much-beloved by populists looking to advance their agenda (and much-vaunted by Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France) – a system that supposedly takes power away from elites to give it directly into the hands of the all-important “people”.

But it is also, possibly, the very instrument which works to undercut long-term populist success.

In a system that allows for existing laws to be challenged (if 50,000 signatures are collected) and new ones to be proposed (100,000 signatures), political issues “rise to the surface faster, more clearly, and must be solved”, says Longchamp; this helps to prevent simmering gripes being repressed too long. Similarly, the chance to vote more frequently (even if turnout rates are low) gives the impression of having a voice, something that both stokes and tempers populist demands.

Laurent Bernhard, from the University of Lausanne, says that this also plays out within the Swiss system of governance, which guarantees each of the major political parties a seat at the consensual top table (the governing Federal Council). The People’s Party is “co-opted” into the system, he says, and becomes more moderate and pragmatic as a result.

And so, in Switzerland the People’s Party is a firm fixture of the political furniture, rather than being ostracised by the type of “cordon sanitaire” that’s placed around nationalist groups in countries like France, where for years it was taboo to talk about the Front National as a legitimate political actor.

Finally, because the Swiss system is based on such a consensus model of government, it’s also not possible that any group – populist or otherwise – can muscle itself into a situation of ultimate authority to make sweeping changes.

And so, on the right, the kind of move towards authoritarian illiberalism seen in (for example) Hungary is unlikely; while on the left, populist calls for economic overhaul and a resurgence of the class struggle are also rowing against the current.

As outgoing president of the Young Socialists and self-described populist Tamara Funiciello put it – “there will never be a revolution in Switzerland” [we’ll publish our full conversation with her tomorrow].

The left-wing populist: in part two of our series, on Wednesday, we'll publish an interview with JUSO leader Tamara Funciello. © Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller

More noise than substance?

In fact, in such a constrained system, Funiciello rather sees populism more as an exercise in communications: a way to grab media attention and spread a simplistic message that may, or may not, be populist in substance.

She describes how the Young Socialists (JUSO) essentially copied the communication style of the People’s Party after seeing how effective it was over the past decade. Operation Libero are also savvy communicators when it comes to making a media splash, and even the Greens, currently riding the electoral mood, slip close to populist discourse, according to one academic studyExternal link.

Longchamp thinks such “rhetorical populism” – which he describes as a dumbing down of discourse, negative and attack-minded campaigning, and getting media attention at all costs – is important to monitor. But he says it’s vital to distinguish it from more “ideological populism” that can lead to dangerous exclusionary politics.

As for the People’s Party – itself ambivalent about the term populism – Longchamp is less willing than some other researchers to label it as out-and-out populist. The party displays many facets of populism, he says, but less so than some variants seen around Europe, which sometimes stem from parties with fascist histories.

“The People’s Party was never an extremist right-wing group,” he says.

Direct Democracy and Populism

This is the first part of a three-part series on populism in Switzerland. On Wednesday we'll publish a profile of young socialist leader Tamara Funiciello, and on Thursday take a look at why embracing populism could be the best way forward. Here's an attempt to define what populism actually means.

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