Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Swiss populists set to sweep polls with war on ‘woke madness’, migration – Times of India

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GENEVA: Switzerland’s biggest political force, the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party, kicked off its general election campaign with figurehead Christoph Blocher riding into Zurich’s ice hockey arena on a tractor trailer.

The SVP, which looks set to increase its lead on its rivals in the October 22 general election, started out as a farmers’ party.

But despite the rural theme of its campaign launch, it has come a long way from its origins and is now accused by some of skirting too close to the far-right.

Blocher, 82, an industrialist who made his fortune in the chemicals sector, took hold of the small agrarian party in the 1990s and transformed its outlook.

Blocher’s SVP is focused around three key principles: no to mass immigration, no to the European Union and no to the abandonment of Swiss neutrality.

“It then grew almost everywhere in Switzerland, becoming, from the 2000s, the leading Swiss party electorally,” Oscar Mazzoleni, professor of political science at the University of Lausanne, told AFP.

“This success came with a new agenda: on the one hand, a much more prominent national defence policy and, on the other, an anti-system, anti-establishment outlook against the political class.”

In the 2023 campaign the party is taking up new battles, notably against “cancel culture” and what it calls “gender terror and woke madness”.

Economic liberals

Following its foundation in a 1971 merger, the SVP bumbled along at around 11 percent in elections to the National Council lower house of parliament, finishing in fourth place and making it the smallest of the four parties in the power-sharing government.

But Blocher launched a vigorous campaign in the 1990s against the prospect of Switzerland joining the European Union, and in the 1999 elections the SVP shot up to first place with 23 percent.

Furthermore, in the 2015 polls in the midst of the European migration crisis, it hit 29 percent: “not only its best score but the best score of all parties in Switzerland since the introduction of proportional representation in 1919”, said Sean Muller, a political scientist at the University of Lausanne.

The party’s liberal economic outlook appeals to business circles yet also finds favour in working-class neighbourhoods.

It stands against “uncontrolled immigration” and “the feeling of being more and more a foreigner in one’s own country”.

But the Federal Commission Against Racism has accused the SVP of running a “xenophobic” campaign on social media by spotlighting criminal cases perpetrated by foreigners.

Its “New normal?” social media adverts plunge into a world of bloodied knives, hooded criminals, fists, bruised faces and frightened women.

“Pure horror: criminals break into your family home at night! And again it was a North African asylum seeker,” says one.

Shocking images

“It remains the party which puts forward the most shocking images and slogans right on the limit of what is permissible in terms of racism or defamatory accusations, while there have been certain representatives who have been convicted,” Muller told AFP.

SVP leader Marco Chiesa, 49, has dismissed such criticisms, while the Swiss media and most political experts avoid painting the party as extreme.

“In Switzerland, the term far-right has strong connotations of Nazism,” especially in the German-speaking regions, said Muller.

Mazzoleni said: “The party advocates liberal conservatism and displays populist and nationalist intentions”, however, unlike far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, “they have no historical links with fascism”.

Pascal Sciarini, a professor of political science at the University of Geneva, said the SVP is “clearly a xenophobic national conservative party”.

“In terms of identity, the SVP is close to being an extreme party but I would not describe it as far-right,” he told AFP.

“It is not a party which calls democracy or the institutions into question,” he said, “even if there are certainly people within the party who have a fairly authoritarian vision of power”.

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