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Swiss parties look for lessons from America

Keystone

Switzerland’s political parties have been closely watching the presidential election campaign in the United States to see if they can learn any lessons.

This content was published on October 28, 2004 - 17:19

They say greater emotion could be injected into Swiss politics as well as more professional campaign planning.

But the four main Swiss parties are quick to point out major differences between the political cultures in the US and Switzerland.

“We are amazed at the sheer dimensions of the campaign, its professionalism and the amount of funding available,” said Christian Weber of the centre-right Radical Party.

The centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right Christian Democrats also highlight the differences, and warn against trying to take over too many campaigning ideas from the US.

“Swiss voters would hardly appreciate it if they were phoned up at home by parties or if campaigners knocked on their doors,” said Reto Nause, secretary-general of the Christian Democrats.

Political scientist Georg Lutz of Bern University sees two fundamental differences: “Political parties in Switzerland get much less funding. And the Swiss political system is based on consensus, despite a slight shift toward a more confrontational style introduced by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.”

Inevitable?

He acknowledges that the People’s Party owes part of its success in the past decade to its long-term strategic planning and its consistent communications strategy.

Lutz warns though that the other parties need to be careful of adapting their strategies. “Over-simplifications and aggressiveness don’t necessarily pay off. It is also a question of style particularly for centre-right parties.”

For Nause of the Christian Democrats, style and message have to go together and ultimately the credibility of the party and the political culture is at stake.

In an apparent criticism of recent campaign advertisements by the People’s Party he adds: “If you don’t care too much about bad style you can take it very far.”

For his part, Jean-Philippe Jeannerat, spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, says emotions are a key element in politics. “But it is a tightrope act. There is always the danger of manipulation at the cost of others, foreigners for instance.”

Emotions

He says clear rules and an independent monitoring authority are needed to avoid abuses.

The Radical Party’s Christian Weber adds that emotions should never win over the aim of finding solutions for a political problem.

The rightwing People’s Party claims it is leading a new trend of emotionalising Swiss politics.

“You have to shout if you want to be heard. All the other parties are moving in a similar direction whether they admit it or not,” People’s Party spokesman Roman Jäggi told swissinfo.

He dismisses criticism by rival parties and says the People’s Party has a clear message and doesn’t need to mince its words. “Swiss politics is marked by permanent campaigning because of Switzerland’s unique system of popular votes and elections.”

Interesting

Most parties agree that new methods, commonly used in the US, could be introduced and adapted to Switzerland to make party congresses more interesting.

The People’s Party is considering recruiting young members to liven up meetings with placards and banners, making them more media friendly.

The Social Democratic Party wants to encourage a greater presence of prominent party members and other political VIPs at congresses, and sees scope for using personalities to attract the interest of potential voters.

It also believes the politicians need to be better trained to deal with the media. “Our politicians will have to get used to hard-hitting questions by journalists from private television and radio stations,” said party spokesman, Jean-Phillipe Jeannerat.

The Christian Democrats want to increase campaigning among focus groups, including registered party members. To that end they have set up a national data bank.

Funding

A key difference between the US and Swiss political systems is the funding of political parties with public finances. And this is unlikely to change any time soon.

Between January 1 and October 13, the Republican and Democratic national committees raised more than $1 billion – a record amount, which dwarves the sums collected in Switzerland.

The Social Democrats want the state to provide funds to parties, but the rightwing and centre-right parties are firmly opposed to any such move.

“We will bring up the issue of partial state funding for parties in parliament in the near future,” says Jeannerat. “At the same time clear regulations are needed to make the system transparent,” he told swissinfo.

However, the People’s Party says small and leftwing parties would be the main beneficiaries.

The Christian Democrats cite party funding scandals in other countries, saying this proves that state funding of parties does not work.

However, they suggest parties should receive logistical support from the authorities. The Radicals for their part are calling for more state support for parliamentarians, but want to rule out public campaign funding.

Experts say there is no way round the state funding of political parties in one form or another. They argue it should not replace dwindling private donations or make campaigns more costly, but reward the parties for their role in the political system.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

Political parties in Switzerland do not receive public funding.
Switzerland’s government, including the president, a largely ceremonial post, is elected by parliament.
Parliamentarians are part-time politicians (“militia system”) and they keep their jobs.
Swiss parties are traditionally decentralised; their bases are in the country’s cantons.

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