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Splinter group leads fight against labour deal

(swissinfo.ch)

The far-right Swiss Democrats are the driving force behind a challenge to a labour accord with the European Union due to come a nationwide vote on September 25.

Some see the nationalist splinter party, led by parliamentarian Bernhard Hess, as a front for other rightwing groups.

A small office on the outskirts of the capital, Bern is the headquarters from where Hess is devising the party’s campaign ahead of the September ballot.

The desktops and floor are cluttered with stacks of plastic stickers and rolled-up posters. In no ambiguous way, they warn against a wave of immigrants and cheap labourers if citizens from the ten new EU member states are allowed unhindered access to the Swiss labour market.

"The campaign has become very much the focus of my work over the past few weeks," Hess said, not least because his party boasts a crucial role as an initiator of the referendum.

President and lone representative of the Swiss Democrats in the federal parliament, Hess is one of the leading opponents against the labour accord, together with the rightwing Swiss People’s Party and other groups more to the Right of the political spectrum.

No stooge

But he discounts allegations that the Swiss Democrats act as stooges for their comrade parties.

"The People's Party is probably not unhappy that we launched the referendum," he said.

This is because they are split into a national-conservative wing and more liberal, business-friendly wing in favour of the accord.

Hess believes opponents of opening up the Swiss labour market stand a realistic chance in September, if they manage to convince a few more undecided voters.

"I'm sure the result will be close," Hess said.

Hess says there are two primary reasons to deny free access to the Swiss labour market for citizens of the mainly eastern European countries.

"Primarily it is a question of avoiding salary dumping," Hess said.

He is concerned that Swiss citizens and long-time foreign residents might lose their jobs because they can't compete against cheap labourers.

Trade unions share some of these concerns and have therefore pushed through a series of safeguards.

But the forthcoming vote is also a poll on immigration, according to Hess.

"We want to limit the number of foreigners in Switzerland."

Mudslinging

These two main arguments of the campaign reflect the programme of the Swiss Democrats. They describe themselves as social and patriotic, in an effort to appeal to the Left and Right at the same time.

But not everybody appreciates this balancing act. The People’s Party maligned Hess as a personality with "limited credibility".

The comments prompted Hess to accuse the rival party of inconsistency. He criticised them of usurping basically all the political positions of the Swiss Democrats.

"Although they claim to fight against foreigners, immigration and abuses of the asylum system, the People’s Party is happy to recruit cheap farm labourers, he added.

Racism

Experts say the September vote is a welcome opportunity for Swiss Democrats to bask in the limelight. The party has suffered a dramatic setback since its heydays in the 1970s when it held 11 seats in the federal parliament.

But Hess has dismissed allegations that his party is fighting for survival on Switzerland’s political stage.

"There are other projects we want to pursue, for instance a proposal to ease the anti-racism law," he said.

It is such policy statements, which continue to fuel rumours about close contacts between the Swiss Democrats and rightwing extremist groups.

Hess appears unfazed by such allegations. "It is the task of a politician to be open to all sides."

But he is adamant that the Swiss Democrats do not resort to violence to achieve their aims. He also makes a point to distance himself from Nazi ideology or people denying the Holocaust ever took place.

swissinfo, Christian Raaflaub

In brief

The Swiss Democrats are at the forefront in the fight against a labour accord with the ten new EU member states.

Alongside the Swiss People's Party and the Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland they collected the necessary signatures to force a nationwide vote on the accords.

The government and parliament had approved the labour agreement last year.

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Key facts

The predecessor party to the far-right Swiss Democrats was founded in 1961 to fight against immigration.
The party currently has one representative in the federal parliament and took less than 1% of the vote in the 2003 parliamentary election.
The Swiss Democrats have their stronghold primarily in rural areas and among low-paid workers.
The party had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s but later lost much of its backing to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

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