Rightwing parties across Europe have claimed the high ground, stirring fears of Islamicisation and demanding the deportation of foreign criminals.
Austrian political scientist Reinhold Gärtner tells swissinfo.ch that Switzerland, which has already voted to ban new minarets and is expected to demand tougher measures against foreigners committing serious offences, is no different to the rest of continent.
Last November, the Swiss decided unexpectedly that minarets did not have a place on the skyline, a proposal backed by the rightwing People’s Party. The same party is now pushing for automatic deportation of foreigners committing serious crimes, an issue that goes to a nationwide vote in a few weeks’ time.
swissinfo.ch: Is it possible to say that Switzerland is following a European trend in that there is a shift to the right?
Reinhold Gärtner: I think you can put it like that. Switzerland is just one example in Europe. Here in Austria there are also initiatives demanding that new minarets be banned. That has already been pushed through in the provinces of Carinthia and Vorarlberg. And in Cologne, Germany, there was massive opposition to a planned mosque.
Other countries are also discussing deporting foreign residents who have committed crimes. In Switzerland, that means up to 350,000 people could be potentially affected. In Austria, there are 120,000 people born here but who don’t have an Austrian passport. So what do we do with them? Deportation doesn’t seem to be the right way to go about this.
swissinfo.ch: In November, the Swiss will also vote on a counter-proposal backed by the government and parliament with similar goals to the People’s Party initiative. The centre-right seems to be under pressure.
R.G.: It’s true that the centre is shifting to the right. It’s happened in France with Sarkozy and with the Austrian People’s Party. But it’s wrong for them to think they can seize the high ground from the rightwing parties by moving even further to the right.
The centre-right needs instead to clearly state its position and differentiate itself from all this agitation and smear campaigns. That is our approach. The centre-right would be much stronger than if it keeps on veering to the right.
swissinfo.ch: Why are the rightwing parties so popular?
R.G.: In every society there are - objectively speaking - real problems that are considered subjectively as either not having been resolved or only partially resolved. For a long time, political structures remained frozen. This is no longer the case: voters are more mobile, and a large number of them respond to the seemingly simple solutions proposed by rightwing parties.
These parties use fear, negative emotions, to get their message through. They have realised that voters respond to that, especially those who harbour their own subjective fears.
A lot of those people are in fact afraid of losing something. These fears are stoked and help make these parties successful. We live in a time of globalisation. Many people suffer because of this, because they fear for their jobs and are afraid they will not be able to maintain their standard of living.
The economic crisis could also bolster social conflicts and help boost the stocks of rightwing parties.
swissinfo.ch: Are Muslims the scapegoats in this situation?
R.G.: I would say so. There have always been bogeymen and scapegoats. And right now, especially after the September 11 attacks, Muslims or Islam have taken on this role.
Islam is being equated with crime and terrorism, foreigners with Turks and Muslims. Islam is seen as a monolithic religion, a simplification that is as untrue for Islam as for other religious groups.
The truth is Islam is a fact of life in many European countries. In Austria, it was recognised in 1912 and is probably the second-biggest religious group in Europe. There are even Muslim states in Europe, such as Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
swissinfo.ch: Can rightwing parties still make electoral gains, or have they used up their potential?
R.G.: It’s hard to say. If you look at the most successful parties, such as the Swiss People’s Party, with 29 per cent of votes at the last federal elections, more gains seem possible. But it won’t go on climbing forever, because there are other political opinions and our society is heterogeneous. These parties will eventually peak, but I cannot say when.
swissinfo.ch: Is it better for a democracy when rightwing parties are involved in government, like in Switzerland or Italy, or should they be left in the opposition?
R.G.: Switzerland’s power-sharing government is based on a different political culture [to most other countries’]. In Austria, the Freedom Party failed as a cabinet partner. In Italy, the Lega Nord is still in the coalition. There is no recipe. But it is difficult for rightwing parties to push through their programme in a coalition government. Because the simple answers they preach don’t exist.
November 28 vote
Swiss voters will have their say on November 28 on a proposal to automatically deport foreigners convicted of serious crimes. Government and parliament recommend voters reject it and accept a counterproposal instead.
The initiative - launched by a committee of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party - aims at the automatic deportation of foreigners convicted of serious crimes such as murder, rape, other serious sexual charges, violence such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and breaking and entering. Welfare fraud is also included.
The counterproposal has tightened the list to (among others): premeditated murder, murder, rape, aggravated armed robbery, and serious violation of the drug law. Grievous bodily harm was added in by the House of Representatives. The counterproposal states that deportations should respect the Swiss constitution and international law.
Supporters and opponents
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party launched the initiative in 2007. It was handed in with more than 210,000 signatures six months later.
The centre-right parties, including the Radicals, the Christian Democrats, as well as most of the country’s 26 cantons, support the parliamentary counter-proposal.
The Greens and a majority of the Social Democrats as a part of a broad alliance of centre-left groups reject both the initiative and the counter-proposal.
(Adapted from German by Scott Capper), swissinfo.ch