Friday

24th Jan 2020

Column

Keep an eye on the Swiss!

So many things are happening in Europe that many of us will have missed the small political earthquake that took place in Switzerland recently.

Small and outside the European Union, Switzerland may not be on everyone's political radar. Yet, what matters for the Alpine country tends to matter for us, too. European political trends often start in Switzerland.

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  • With the Italian and Austrian far-right forced out of government and several Green-conservative governing coalitions in the making all over Europe, it may be a good idea to keep an eye on Switzerland

This is why the result of the Swiss parliamentary elections on 20 October – huge gains for the greens, painful losses for the far-right – deserves our scrutiny. Is the same thing going to happen in other European countries?

The result was historic by Swiss standards. First, the two green parties – the left-wing Greens and the centre-right Liberal Greens – almost doubled their scores. Together they won 21 percent of the vote.

Second, this profit came mainly at the expense of the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP). The SVP has been Switzerland's largest party since the mid-1990s. It still is: after a loss of almost four percent in October it still commands 25 percent of the vote. But many people start to wonder: for how long?

Express the result in numbers of seats, and the picture becomes clearer.

There are 200 seats in total. No party has ever won as many new seats in one go as the Greens did in October: 17. They now have 28 seats. The previous record was registered by the SVP, which scored 15 seats in one go in 1999.

The SVP lost 12 seats in October, leaving it with 58 seats. No party ever lost so many seats in one fell swoop. 58 seats changed sides this time, which was also a record. Moreover, 84 women were elected to parliament, which means they now occupy 42 percent of all seats.

With 45 percent the voter turnout was lower than last time (turnouts are always low in Switzerland, because people vote so often), but within that, the proportion of young people went up considerably.

Until now, Swiss youth were considered apolitical. Very few voted. But this time the young showed up in droves. 28 percent of Green voters and 26 percent of Liberal Green voters were brand-new voters.

For the far-right SVP, which usually mobilises its supporters very well, the opposite happened: turnout declined. Several SVP loyalists stayed home this time – mostly older men in rural areas.

Climate game-changer

This year, a new theme dominated Swiss politics: the climate. It started with Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg's visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos last January. Many journalists came for Donald Trump. But Trump stayed home, and all attention turned to Greta.

This jolted young Swiss into action. SVP voters by contrast felt no one was interested in their favourite themes, such as immigration and taking back control from the EU. They abstained.

After Davos, large climate demonstrations were held in Swiss cities. They continued throughout the year. For the first time in many years, election campaigns were not dominated by the SVP attacking migrants and Europe. Climate concerns dominated everything. Over the last two years the SVP suffered several electoral setbacks. Last March it took a beating at the local elections in Zürich, for example.

The Swiss political landscape suddenly looks different. Parliament used to lean to the right. Now it has a slight centre-left majority, even though the traditional socialist party lost a little in October and even more at elections for the Senate in November. But socialist voters tend to be older, too. This underlines that a new generation has now entered politics.

With hindsight this changing of the guard should not be a total surprise. The young already manifested themselves earlier.

Back in 2014 some university students started a political movement, Operation Libero. They saw that centrist parties more or less gave up the fight against the SVP, giving the far-right a walk-over at referendums. The students decided to take up that fight themselves.

This has been a huge success. Operation Libero won five referendums against the SVP in a row. This energised many young Swiss. Civil society and centrist parties took note, too. This paved the way for the current breakthrough.

There are two reasons why political trends often start in Switzerland.

First, Switzerland is one of the most open economies in the world. Globalisation arrived here faster than in EU countries cushioned by slow, collective decision-making. The credit crisis started in Switzerland a full year earlier (in 2007) than in surrounding countries.

The Swiss articulated their political response to globalisation early, too. The SVP has been the biggest party since the mid-nineties. Initiatives like 'Eat local' and 'Basic income for all' landed in Switzerland before taking up in the rest of Europe. The Swiss were also the first in Europe to launch debates on bank buffers and bonuses in parliament.

Direct democracy

The second reason why trends often start in Switzerland, is direct democracy: the Swiss vote more often than anyone else.

Between two 'ordinary' elections, they have many local, regional and national votes. Any brewing popular sentiment can be expressed in the ballot box pretty quickly - and consolidate one or two months later. In other countries this political articulation takes longer.

Is Switzerland once again the canary in a European coal mine? Only time will tell.

But with the Italian and Austrian far-right forced out of government and several Green-conservative governing coalitions in the making all over Europe, it may be a good idea to keep an eye on Switzerland.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in De Standaard.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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