Monday

17th Jan 2022

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

Column

The last convulsions of the old world order

If European countries want a strong role in this new order, they must redefine sovereignty and update it. This means that only if Europeans are prepared to pool power, they can help lay the foundations for new international institutions.

Column

Habsburg lessons for Europe's foreign policy

The EU is facing similar challenges. Like the Habsburgs, it must work out ways to navigate an increasingly messy geo-political map and stand firm without the advantage of military predominance.

Column

The benefits of being unpopular

Paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but when emotions run too high in politics, hotheads may take over.

Column

Why nations are egomaniacs

A nation, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, is not capable of altruism. Even less so, if such a group has formed on the basis of strong emotions and casts itself as the "saviour of the nation".

Column

Europe as a crush zone

In a 1917 book, British geographer James Fairgrieve described parts of central and eastern Europe as a "crush zone". The area was a buffer between Germany and Russia. When those two quarrelled, they fought it out in the crush zone.

News in Brief

  1. French parliament agrees stricter vaccine-pass system
  2. US speaks to energy firms about EU gas cut-off scenario
  3. Anti-vax protests held in the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria
  4. German MEP spends €690,000 on office renovation
  5. Microsoft identified destructive malware in Ukraine agencies
  6. Danish intelligence crisis deepens
  7. Hackers expose Polish military secrets
  8. Swedish soldiers might leave Sahel due to Russian fighters

Gas and nuclear: a lose-lose scenario for Eastern Europe

The strong advocacy of Central and Eastern European capitals for including fossil gas and nuclear power in the EU's green taxonomy only leads to another unsustainable energy lock-in for the region, leaving their grid exposed to third-country coercion.

Column

Breastfeeding for democracy

Clubs, associations and social networks help to give meaning not just to life, but to the entire democratic system. Be they dinner groups, voluntary fire brigades, citizens' councils, environmental NGOs, neighbourhood committees coaching refugees, and yes, why not, breastfeeding-support groups.

Latest News

  1. James Kanter, Shada Islam are new editors at EUobserver
  2. The loopholes and low bar in Macron's push for a global tax
  3. No love for Russia in latest EU strategy
  4. New EU Parliament chief elected This WEEK
  5. Lead MEP now wants ETS opt-out for homes and private cars
  6. MEPs seek probe into EU commissioner over Bosnia
  7. EU's Borrell contradicts Germany on Russia gas pipeline
  8. It's time for a more geopolitical EU-Turkey cooperation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us