The outcome of Sunday’s citizenship votes marks a return to winning ways for the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.
In an interview with swissinfo, Clive Church, a leading foreign expert on Swiss politics, explains why the party is setting the agenda once again.
Opinion polls had predicted that the People’s Party would fail in its bid to maintain tight restrictions on citizenship.
After making big gains in last year's parliamentary elections and claiming a second cabinet seat, the party suffered setbacks in nationwide votes in May on pensions and tax cuts.
But Church, an emeritus professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent in Britain, believes a series of hard-hitting and inflammatory adverts helped the party to close the gap on Sunday.
He says the adverts, which predicted a dramatic rise in Switzerland’s Muslim population and featured a picture of a mocked-up Swiss passport in the name of Osama bin Laden, struck a chord with voters.
According to Church, voters failed to heed an appeal on Friday by five political parties for them to ignore the gutter politics of the People’s Party.
swissinfo: Are you surprised by the outcome of the citizenship votes?
Clive Church: A little bit in the sense that the initial polls were quite favourable and then you had this very clear statement from the five other parties about the nature of the People’s Party’s advertising. I did think that might have an effect.
But I’m not surprised in the sense that it’s very clear that identity issues and issues which can be seen as threatening direct democracy are fairly problematic in Switzerland. There is a large reservoir of opposition.
swissinfo: According to the polls, the People's Party gained a lot of ground in the past few weeks. Did these poster campaigns strike a chord with wavering voters?
C.C.: That would seem to me to be fairly likely. I suppose a lot of people must feel that there is a danger of a kind of loss of control [to foreigners]. Statistically in Switzerland, I don’t think it’s the case. But you can see that people might think it was.
swissinfo: How is this going to affect the way that Switzerland is seen abroad?
C.C.: I do not think it will be helpful. My basic position is that people actually know very little about Switzerland – there’s a kind of vacuum and they only tend to hear bad news.
With this result, people are going to say “you’re just like [far-right leaders] Jörg Haider and [Jean-Marie] Le Pen”. Now, I don’t think that actually is the case, but I think it’s going to encourage that.
swissinfo: As with last year’s parliamentary elections, this is another resounding victory for the People’s Party. And this was in the face of opposition from the government and the other three main parties.
C.C.: I think the way they’ve been playing it is that “the elite has betrayed us”.
They’ve turned on employers’ organisations, they’ve turned on the other parties, and they’ve turned on the government even though Christoph Blocher [the figurehead of the People’s Party] is in it. And that’s a very strong line to sell, particularly when the government is obviously weak and divided, and not able to put up much of a fight.
swissinfo: One thing that’s clear is that the People’s Party clearly knows how to fight a campaign.
C.C.: There is no doubt that they are by far and away the best organised party. They’ve got a more vigorous and more committed strike force than any of the other parties.
One of the ironies is that here you have an anti-European party which in many ways is the most European of them all in the way that it operates.
But I wouldn’t push their success too far, because what does seem to be the case is that people clearly still vote for them as a protest party.
swissinfo-interview: Adam Beaumont
Two votes on easing citizenship restrictions for young foreigners were thrown out by 56.8% and 51.6%.
The vote was split along linguistic lines, with most French-speakers supporting both citizenship proposals.
German-speakers rejected both citizenship votes.