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Topsy-turvy campaigning styles enliven controversial vote

The opponents of the rightwing 'Swiss-law-first' initiative staged some spectacular campaign events. The People's Party remained unexpectedly sober in contrast. Peter Schneider/Keystone

Known for its brash posters the political right has surprised the public with unusually plain and sober designs ahead of the vote about the ‘Swiss law first’ initiative.

This content was published on November 13, 2018 - 16:00

At the same time, it’s their opponents who have resorted to more populist and spectacular imagery and events. It is a calculated and thought-out strategy on both sides.

The visual appearance of the campaign ahead of the November 25 vote about giving the Swiss constitution priority over international law is not what the general public expected to get.

The People's Party logo doesn't even feature on the posters. Anthony Anex/Keystone

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party has used unusually sober language, even omitting the party symbol from its posters, in an effort to convince voters to approve its controversial initiative. They merely show a man or a woman holding a sign saying “Yes”.

This is in contrast to previous imagery with black sheep, strong symbols and crude language.

Georg Lutz, political scientist at Lausanne University, was also astonished by the choice, but says there is a logic to it.

“After losing the 2016 nationwide vote on a hardline proposal to expel foreign criminals, the People’s Party leadership realised its provocative campaigns could not reach beyond the circle of its supporters necessary to win a vote,” he says.

“With its new campaign referring to Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, the party hopes to appeal to a broad public and attract voters from the centre of the political spectrum.”

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Role reversal

It is as if the two sides had swapped roles for the forthcoming November 25 vote. Now it is the broad alliance of opponents - from left to the centre-right, the business community to trade unions and other representatives of civil society – which has decided to appeal to emotions and strong symbols.

A committee made up of 120 non-governmental groups presented an inflatable Trojan Horse in cities and towns. It has warned that approval of the initiative would “pave the way to discrimination and arbitrariness”.

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As part of its campaign, a satirical video was produced by the alliance of opponents to encourage its grassroots to reject the initiative at the ballot box. The spoof video shows the leaders of the People’s Party hiding inside the horse, plotting a coup similar to the group led by Odysseus to win the war against Troy in Greek mythology.

For its part, the Swiss chapter of Amnesty International has launched its own campaign, denouncing the rightwing initiative as an attack on human rights and calling on Swiss citizens to reject the proposal.

The travelling exhibition showed profiles of people in Switzerland who appealed to the European court of Human Rights to defend their basic rights. ZFG Allianz der Zivilgesellschaft

Another civil society group, Schutzfaktor M/Facteur de protection D/Fattore di protezione D, has warned that the initiative is aimed at forcing Switzerland to revoke the European Convention on Human Rights.

It has launched an appeal for the respect of human rights by using portraits of individuals in Switzerland whose basic rights were violated and who appealed to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

The leftwing Social Democratic Party, one of the four main political groups in Switzerland, in its campaign compares the Swiss People’s Party with autocratic and isolationist leaders in the United States, Russia and Turkey- Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan respectively.

"Switzerland does not play their game" - the Social Democrats say. Peter Schneider/Keystone

Following harsh criticism for its notable absence in a previous vote campaign against an anti-immigration initiative by the People Party, the Swiss business community appears to have changed its policy.

The Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, staged an event on parliament square in the capital, Bern. The installation with freight containers and information panels tried to bring home the message that voters’ approval of the initiative aimed against international treaties would put at risk the numerous trade agreements, notably jeopardising the country’s export-oriented industry.

Eighteen freight containers in front of the parliament building. The Business Federation says this is how much Switzerland exports in ten minutes. Lukas Lehmann/Keystone


The opponents of the initiative did not expect the new, tame campaign style of the People’s Party, according to political scientist Lutz.

They expected another aggressive campaign by the right and wanted to respond in kind.

“The result of the 2016 vote on the deportation of foreign criminals showed them that such a campaign can be successful against the People’s Party.”

Lutz says it is too early to say who will emerge as the winner this time. 

Initial surveys found chances are intact for the People's Party initiative despite clearly lagging behind the opponents.  A final opinion poll, commissioned by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation – parent company – will be published on Wednesday.

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