How COVID Caused the Swiss Radical Right to Tie Itself in Knots

by Dr. Adrian Favero (PiAP’s Switzerland focused Research Fellow)

This article originally appeared as “How COVID caused the Swiss far right to tie itself in knots” on The Conversation on 29/03/21. It is reproduced here with full attribution and the consent of the author.

The first COVID-19 case was reported in Switzerland on February 25 2020. Soon after, the country experienced alarmingly high rates of the disease. The Swiss population moves around a lot, crosses borders with neighbouring countries regularly and lives in concentrated areas, none of which helped matters.

On March 11 2020, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a worldwide pandemic and five days later, because of the “rapidly worsening” outbreak, Switzerland declared an “extraordinary situation” under the Epidemics Act. This declaration allowed the government to order necessary measures to contain the spread of the virus without approval from parliament.

All private and public events were banned; restaurants, bars, leisure facilities, non-essential shops and most schools had to close. The government also introduced checks on the borders with Germany, Austria and France and deployed around 8000 military personnel to help with logistics.

Switzerland has a decentralised, federal political system. The country has also been characterised as a “consociational democracy” in which a grand coalition of the four largest parties forms the government. This solves political conflicts by negotiation and broadly based compromises. The concepts of democratic inclusion and participation are also held in high regard. Against this backdrop, the federal government’s invocation of exclusive power was a controversial one.

All this means that Switzerland became an excellent case to study for understanding how a global health crisis affects the stability of well-established democratic institutions and shifts political debates.

Lockdown tension

The largest of Switzerland’s four major parties in the government, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is one of Europe’s strongest and most successful far-right parties. Since the 1990s, the SVP has shifted further to the right and has, in the process, progressed from appealing largely to conservative voters in rural areas to becoming a national force. It is anti-immigration and anti-EU integration.

The SVP occupies an unusual position in that it holds two of the seven seats on the Swiss Confederation’s federal government but continues to aggressively promote itself as the opposition to the political establishment. This balancing act has become particularly challenging during the pandemic.

At first, the four governing parties found themselves surprisingly united on introducing restrictions. However, this unity did not last long. True to its strategy of being both part of the government and the opposition, the SVP quickly changed direction. The party bemoaned the negative impact lockdown was having on the Swiss economy and instead demanded stricter border controls to prevent the spread of the virus. At the same time, it criticised the government’s general handling and management of the crisis, increasingly targeting the federal minister for health (from the Social Democratic Party).

Undoubtedly, some of the SVP’s criticisms were justified. The pandemic has revealed how trying it is for a government to steer a coherent course and communication when a country faces unexpected circumstances. This is even truer for a federal system with sub-national political entities. In Switzerland, each region (canton) has fiscal autonomy and significant devolved powers. And each of the 26 cantons has a different view of how to tackle the crisis, depending on their economic and cultural circumstances. What works for Geneva may not work for Zurich.

After a significant period of public support, scepticism began to really set in by the time of the second national lockdown in late October 2020. And yet people wanted more, not less central control over decisions.

In response, the SVP intensified its criticism and went as far as accusing the federal government of “introducing a dictatorship” – a surprising accusation from a party with two representatives in that same government and the most seats in parliament. What the SVP hoped to achieve with this strategy remains something of a puzzle.

Half in, half out

Radical-right leaders leaders and parties around the world have responded in different ways to COVID-19. Some political scientists argued that their responses depend on their position in each respective political system. If they are in power they are likely to enforce strict measures and if they are in opposition, they attack strong measures from the government.

The SVP occupies both positions, resulting in a meandering approach accompanied by an increasingly radical rhetoric in line with its ideological views. The attacks eventually culminated in questioning the Swiss consociational system itself – which, in turn, forced one of the SVP representatives in the Federal Council to publicly defend  the status quo.

Ultimately, amid all this confusion, it is difficult to say whether or not this strategy has benefited the SVP. On the one hand, it allowed the party to strengthen its own populist profile, to be visible in the media, and to act as the defender of the public interest and the national economy. On the other, the SVP’s campaign against the government has made it look a rather ineffective partner in a grand coalition government.

The SVP’s troubles may be tied to Switzerland’s unique political system but they also speak to a question that resonates with radical-right parties everywhere: once you’ve found success as an outside agitator, what do you do once you become part of the establishment?

Leaders vs. Members: Can the Swiss People’s Party Deal with the Tension?

This autumn the Populism in Action Project will be publishing a Special Issue of the open access journal Politics and Governance on populist radical right party organisation, with a special focus on the extent to which parties in this family remain centralized in decision-making. The Special Issue will cover both Western and Eastern/Central Europe and include contributions by experts from all over the continent. All four of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Fellows will contribute an article exploring the findings of the research that they’ve been undertaking since 2019. Ahead of the publication of the Special Issue, in this series of blog posts our research fellows share “three key takeaways” from their articles

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by Dr. Adrian Favero

Current academic literature depicts the Schweizerische Volkspartei/Union démocratique du centre (SVP/UDC, Swiss People’s Party) as one of most successful populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Western Europe (Stockemer 2018). From the 1990s onwards, the party’s de facto leader Christoph Blocher and his political allies in the influential Zurich Wing changed the SVP’s organisational structure, striving for greater centralisation and ideological internal coherence. As a result, the SVP enjoyed growing electoral success for many years since the mid-1990s.

Despite the party’s electoral gains and ability to mobilise its members, the extent to which national party leaders can concentrate power vis-à-vis the party’s cantonal branches remains a matter of contention (Mazzoleni and Rossini 2016). The SVP’s cantonal and local branches have retained some degree of autonomy due to the highly decentralised Swiss political system. Recent internal developments and structural changes at the party’s national level seem to have accentuated organisational and programmatic disagreements between the national organisation and regional branches, and may hamper recruitment and mobilisation of members.

My article in the forthcoming Populism in Action Special Issue argues that the dominance of federal party institutions and its highly centralised organisational structure could augment tensions between the SVP’s national organisation and its sub-national branches. Based on interviews with SVP representatives from three cantonal branches (Zurich, Bern, Geneva), I explore three key areas, which need to be addressed by the national leadership to avoid alienating sub-national branches. By exploring the cantonal representatives’ opinions on the party’s rootedness on the ground and its centralised organisational setting, as well as its activities, my article offers a thorough analysis of these matters of contention.

Rootedness at the local level and the Building of a Mass Party

Cantonal and local branches are instrumental in guaranteeing the SVP’s rootedness across the country. Local branches provide a direct linkage between the party and its members, and are the best way of attracting supporters. By relying predominantly on social activities and personal communication, branches mobilise voters by offering them a clear message and ideology, as well as the opportunity to become part of a community of people sharing the same ideas and values. To maintain the party’s mass support and electoral success, local branches need to be strengthened and supported by the national organisation, without ignoring cantonal autonomy and local idiosyncrasies.

Activism

Parties benefit from active supporters and a large membership base. Active members are important for electoral success, especially for communicating the party’s message within their communities. However, such a system requires the identification of the members with the party’s ideology and core issues. They have to relate to the Lebenswelt (life world) of party supporters for them to feel motivated to engage. Existing core topics, such as restricted immigration, independence from EU influence, and strengthening the middle class have been effective in mobilising their existing base and to strengthen cohesion within the party. Nevertheless, many SVP representatives claim that the party lacks focus on topics that matter locally, such as health care and child support. They argue that this has hampered further growth of an active membership base.

Centralisation

In recent years the SVP has increasingly centralised power in the national leadership. Organisational changes ensured that the Central Committee acquired more responsibilities, whilst electorally successful cantonal branches were granted more delegates to the National Delegate Assembly, and a newly created Party Executive Committee (Parteileitungsausschuss) became solely responsible for the party’s daily business and national campaigns. According to the party’s statutes, cantonal branches still possess organisational autonomy but not all cantonal branches are equally influential. Smaller cantonal branches and Delegate Assemblies have rather limited influence on preliminary decision-making processes regarding the development of strategies and programmatic proposals.  In reality the national party leadership and representatives from larger cantonal branches formulate the party’s ideological direction and make strategic planning decisions. Addressing this democratic imbalance would make the party more inclusive and ensure broader support for organisational changes and programmatic decisions.

Concluding Remarks

Overall, a centralized national organization and the provision of a clearly articulated ideology has enabled the SVP to attract members and mobilize activists. However, further centralization of decision-making may erode the ties between the national leadership and cantonal branches. The further growth of the party and its capacity for mobilisation might depend on the national leadership investing in rootedness on the ground, the development of mechanisms which increase inclusion of branches, and an extension of its key topics, for members to feel compelled to engage with them. To maintain its status as one of Europe’s most successful PRRPs these current tensions have to be addressed and resolved.

Dr. Adrian Favero is the Populism in Action Project’s Switzerland focused Research Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter here. 

“Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe” Edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Davide Vampa has Been Published

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi has edited a book in Routledge’s Extremism & Democracy series with Davide Vampa. Entitled Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe it was published today (14th January 2021).

The purpose of the book is described in the following terms:

This book analyses how party competition has adjusted to the success of populism in Western Europe, whether this is non-populists dealing with their populist competitors, or populists interacting with each other. The volume focuses on Western Europe in the period 2007–2018 and considers both right-wing and left-wing populist parties. It critically assesses the concept and rise of populism, and includes case studies on Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Italy. The authors apply an original typology of party strategic responses to political competitors, which allows them to map interactions between populist and non-populist parties in different countries. They also assess the links between ideology and policy, the goals of different populist parties, and how achieving power affects these parties. The volume provides important lessons for the study of political competition, particularly in the aftermath of a crisis and, as such, its framework can inform future research in the post-Covid-19 era. This wide-ranging study will appeal to students and scholars of political science interested in populism and political competition; and will appeal to policy makers and politicians from across the political spectrum.

You can order a copy here.

Video: Populism and Media — From Poland to Switzerland

This post originally appeared on EA Worldview

How are Europe’s populist parties using media in their pursuit of power?

With Presidential election results in Poland pointing to divides between older and younger voters, Scott Lucas talks to the Populism in Action Project’s Adrian Favero and Daniele Albertazzi about another European country with similar dynamics: Switzerland.

Adrian explains how the organizational model and organizing strategies adopted by the Swiss People’s Party effectively target key demographic groups voting for it, mainly by using traditional media and face-to-face interaction on the ground rather than focusing exclusively on online and social media.

A Starter Library on Populism

By PiAP’s Adrian Favero, Niko Hatakka, Judith Sijstermans, Mattia Zulianello – this piece originally appeared on EA Worldview


We asked each of the Research Fellows on the Populism in Action Project to give us opening recommendations to learn about populism, populist parties, and the future of European politics and society.

This is their Starter’s Library:

Dr. Adrian Favero, Switzerland focused Research Fellow

Nicole Loew and Thorsten Fass (2019) “Between Thin- and Host-ideologies: How Populist Attitudes Interact with Policy Preferences in Shaping Voting Behaviour,” Representation

Loew and Fass, from the Freie Universität Berlin, explores the demand side of left-wing and right-wing populism in Germany. They focus on voters for the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) and Die Linke (Left Party), applying the ideational approach to populism as a framework for their research.

The study considers the complex interaction between populist attitudes, policy preferences, and voter choice. Loew and Fass build an analysis derived from the literature on host ideologies, such as socialism and nationalism, that influence voting behavior.

In their conclusion, they outline convincingly that on the demand side of politics, populist attitudes and strong policy preferences lead to votes for populist parties on either the left or the right. Yet voters with moderate policy concerns and strong populist attitudes are still more likely to vote for populist parties because these attitudes substitute for policy preferences.

The article sheds light on a group of voters who are less driven by policy preferences than they are motivated by populism itself. If this is true across the nation, populist parties can rely on either policies or populist attitudes as a driver to increase their vote share.

Shelley Boulianne, Karolina Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber (2020) “Right-Wing Populism, Social Media and Echo Chambers in Western Democracies”, New Media & Society

Boulianne, Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber explore the effect of self-exposure to social media–based “echo chambers” on the rise of right-wing populism.

Based on a large-scale survey of 4500 respondents conducted in France, the UK, and the US, the authors assess citizens’ experiences of echo-chamber effects and support for populist parties. The novelty of this strand of research is the study’s comparative approach, which rules out country-specific explanations such as economics and immigration.

The study also assesses the polarizing effect of echo chambers and polarization’s link to left-wing or right-wing ideologies. The authors conclude that exposure to selective information in social media echo chambers does not predict support for right-wing parties as opposed to other parties. However, they find an echo chamber effect in the context of offline discussions with like-minded people, which is associated with support for right-wing populists.

The findings challenge the common assumption that digital echo chambers increase the propensity to endorse right-wing populism.

Laurent Bernhard and Hanspeter Kriesi (2019) “Populism in Election Times: A Comparative Analysis of 11 Countries in Western Europe”, West European Politics

Bernhard and Kriesi, through a content analysis of press releases in 11 countries in Western Europe, offers an interesting comparative analysis of the populist ideology expressed by parties during election campaigns.

They evaluate three types of appeals: people-centrism, anti-elitism, and demands for popular sovereignty. They not only look at populist parties from both the radical right and the radical left, but also at the division of issue dimensions, such as culture and economy, in northern and southern Europe. The article combines quantitative text analysis with qualitative examples, providing the reader with helpful illustrations of the national context.

The authors conclude that mainstream parties are less prone to rely on populist rhetoric. Intriguingly, this challenges the assumption that mainstream parties adjust to populist strategies exhibited by the far left and right. This description of gradual populism among “extreme parties” is important because it highlights the importance of nuanced classification.

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: "Finally Create Security"

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: “Finally Create Security” (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Niko Hatakka, Finland focused Research Fellow

Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, Mervi Pantti, and Gavan Titley (2020) “Broadcasting the Movement and Branding Political Microcelebrities: Finnish Anti-Immigration Video Practices on YouTube”, Journal of Communication

The authors analyze the usage of YouTube by Finnish anti-immigration movements after 2015.

Despite online platforms having significant effects on the style, contents, and form of populist radical right activism, in and parallel to the Finns Party, specific Finnish online movements have rarely been researched empirically. The study is based on qualitative content analysis of the actors, genres, functions, styles, framings, and strategies employed in YouTube videos affiliated to two separate movements, Rajat Kiinni and Suomen Kansa Ensin. The qualitative analysis is preceded and eloquently informed by a simple, yet effective, network analysis.

The paper highlights the role of microcelebrities as pivotal nodes in the movement’s network. Without explicitly stating the outcome, the authors display and discuss how YouTube’s properties and functions affect the process of empty signifiers uniting hybrid political movements.

Michael Hameleers and Rens Vliegenthart (2020) “The Rise of a Populist Zeitgeist? A Content Analysis of Populist Media Coverage in Newspapers Published between 1990 and 2017”, Journalism Studies

Hameleers and Vliegenhart’s article contributes to the discussion on the mainstreaming of populism as a thin-centered ideology in Western Europe.

Focusing on a 28-year period in the Netherlands, the authors use a dictionary-based approach to analyze the temporal prevalence of populist communication in newspapers. Measuring the number of articles which contain pre-selected words that are indicative of four selected elements of populist communication, the study portrays how people-centric and anti-elitist communication has become more prevalent over time.

The paper is the first attempt to use a word-based automated analysis of populist communication on a longer time scale. Because of its single country focus, it effectively proves an outlet-independent increase in the elements of populist communication measured.

Future studies seeking to pursue this method will have to resolve the problem of being able to use it reliably in a comparative setting. The difficulty of this task raises interesting questions about whether the thin-ideological understanding of the different elements of populism, for example viewing “the people” as the “ordinary people”, corresponds to the reality of how populist mobilizations are enabled by a staggeringly vast array of signifiers.

Jonathan Dean and Bice Maiguascha (2020) “Did Somebody Say Populism? Towards a Renewal and Reorientation of Populism Studies”, Journal of Political Ideologies

The mainstream of populism research is strongly rooted in the ideational approach, which regards populism as a set of ideas or a thin-centered ideology. So it is refreshing to read articles that engage with the “other” approach, the Laclaudian theory of populism.

Dean and Maiguascha critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both theoretical approaches and encourage populism scholars to critically evaluate whether their use of the concepts are useful. Specifically they urge scholars to ask whether their selected definition of populism can both feed into anti-populist rhetoric and provide momentum for “populist hype”.

The authors suggest that more scholarly attention should be directed to populism not as a concept but as a signifier that has potential to be more political than analytical, especially outside of academia. A good first step will be a more conscious effort by scholars to recognize and be transparent about the epistemic limits of our definitions and operationalization of “populist ideas”, “populist style”, and “populist logic”.

Referring to only one of these distinct elements comprehensively as “populism” makes little sense and enflames disputes between the different populism research communities. Further work to combine the theoretical aspects of the different sub-disciplines of populism research should be encouraged, and this article is an excellent contribution to such a pursuit.

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Dr. Judith Sijstermans, Belgium focused Research Fellow

Léonie de Jonge (2019). “The Populist Radical Right and the Media in the Benelux: Friend or Foe?”, The International Journal of Press/Politics

De Jonge’s work focuses on Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg and ties into the case of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB), one of four cases being studied by the Populism in Action Project.

Drawing on evocative interviews with media practitioners, de Jonge argues that the media in the Netherlands and Flanders have taken a more accommodating approach to right wing populist parties, in comparison with that of the media in Wallonia and Luxembourg. These approaches are shaped by mass media market dynamics in each country and the nature of their political systems.

De Jonge suggests that differing media responses have shaped the populist parties’ electoral trajectories. This speaks to an interesting dynamic within Belgium, where Flanders and Wallonia differ significantly in terms of populist radical right success. This has been further studied by Hilde Coffé.

It may seem incongruous to include a work so focused on the media in this review. However, in my early interviews with VB representatives, the media has been a pressing issue. The party seeks out support on social media to bypass what they see as a widespread “cordon mediatique” in the Belgian press. De Jonge discusses her work in a podcast (in Dutch).

Menno Fenger (2018). “The Social Policy Agendas of Populist Radical Right Parties in Comparative Perspective”, Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy

It is a stretch to say, as Fenger does, that “there has been only limited research on the attitudes of these populist radical right parties towards the welfare state”. However, the novelty in this article’s approach is its broad empirical comparison between six populist radical right parties.

The inclusion of Donald Trump as a populist radical right figure is controversial but interesting. Fenger shows a clear gap between the social policies portrayed by Trump and those of his European counterparts, despite “some European leaders highlight[ing] their association with the Trump Administration”. The strategy of adopting Trump’s language has emerged in the Flemish Interest, making it useful to include Trump here, if only to highlight how few substantive similarities exist despite the professed symbolic links.

The article raises more questions than it answers providing a starting point for further research. Why are some parties, as Fenger says, “dogmatic” whilst others are “pragmatic”? Should we include Trump in future analyses? What causes similarities in Dutch and Flemish approaches to social policy? Studies of PRRPs rarely cover such broad ground, and given the comparative aims of our own project, this article is a useful reference point.

Agnes Akkerman, Andrzej Zaslove, and Bram Spruyt (2017). “‘We the People’ or ‘We the Peoples’? A Comparison of Support for the Populist Radical Right and Populist Radical Left in the Netherlands”, Swiss Political Science Review

The authors of this article compare supporters of a populist radical right and populist radical left party in the Netherlands, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) and the Socialistische Partij (Socialist Party, SP) respectively. They test hypotheses on the attitudes that unite and divide these parties’ voters.

Populism in Activism Project co-investigator Stijn van Kessel has suggested that the SP has stepped away from its populist rhetoric. However, studying populism in parties on either side of the ideological spectrum is a useful way to move past preconceived notions about populism. The authors argue that, given their faith in the “people”, “a populist vote may not only be a vote against but also for something”. Both parties’ supporters hold populist attitudes and low levels of trust, but what supporters of each party are voting for differs.

Tying into Fenger’s discussions of social policy, the authors posit a certain symmetry in the welfare policies of PRR and PRL parties, hypothesizing that supporters of both support more social security benefits. However, their findings do not support this.

For those with an interest in this dynamic, other scholars have delved more deeply into the links between economic positions and populist attitudes in voters including in this article by Van Kessel and Steven Van Hauwaert.

Poster of Belgium's Vlaams Belang party: "Thanks Voters!"

Poster of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party: “Thanks Voters!”

Dr. Mattia Zulianello, Italy focused Research Fellow

Lenka Buštíková and Petra Guasti (2019). “The State as a Firm: Understanding the Autocratic Roots of Technocratic Populism”, East European Politics and Societies

Buštíková and Guasti provide an excellent and intriguing analysis of technocratic populism, a little-studied manifestation of the populist phenomenon. Focusing on the case of Czech Republic since 1989, the authors ground a solid empirical analysis within a valuable theoretical framework, which greatly enhances our understanding of the many populist actors that do not fit the typical left-right categorization.

Technocratic populism is exemplified in the contemporary context by Andrej Babiš’ ANO 2011. This is the leading force in today’s Czech government, and “strategically uses the appeal of technocratic competence and weaponizes numbers to deliver a populist message”, which emerges “at critical junctures as an alternative to the ideology of liberal democratic pluralism”.

The authors argue that the broader appeal of technocratic populism in comparison with economic and nativist forms of populism, as well as its claim to rule in the name of “the people” on the grounds of technical expertise, make it a “sophisticated threat to liberal democracy”. In particular, by combining an emphasis on technocratic expertise with a people-centric message, this form of populism may lead to democratic backsliding by fueling civic apathy and by providing political actors with a master frame to “legitimize” concentrations of power.

Luigi Curini (2019). “The Spatial Determinants of the Prevalence of Anti-Elite Rhetoric Across Parties”, West European Politics

Spatial analyses of political competition are a true political science classic, and this article by Luigi Curini shows the utility and elegance of such approaches to the study of key aspects of contemporary party politics.

Using data from the 2014 Chapel Hill Expert Survey data, the author conceptualizes anti-elitism “as a non-policy vote-winning strategy” that has “quasi-valence” features, because they can be positively evaluated by a wide pool of voters. In light of such properties, anti-elitism is understood as a strategy that can potentially be used by any political actor with the goal of increasing their electoral appeal.

Curini’s analysis suggests that the decision of political parties to focus on anti-elitism “does not depend entirely on some inner identity; it also depends on the spatial environment in which they compete”. Indeed, this paper reveals that a given party has a higher incentive to resort to anti-elitism if it is “ideologically ‘squeezed’ among adjacent parties”. Most notably, in such a context, focusing on anti-elitism may help a political party differentiate itself from its proximate competitors in the eyes of the electorate.

Sergiu Gherghina and Sorina Soare (2019). “Electoral Performance Beyond Leaders? The Organization of Populist Parties in Post-Communist Europe”, Party Politics

Gherghina and Sorina Soare offer an excellent example of how to study the impact of leadership and organizational features on the electoral performance of populist parties.

Grounded in the qualitative analysis of primary and secondary sources, the paper focuses on three cases from post-communist Europe that present considerable differences in terms of their electoral fate: the Bulgaria Without Censorship Party, the Party of Socialists from the Republic of Moldova, and the People’s Party-Dan Diaconescu of Romania.

Rather than treating leadership and organization as a single variable, as it is often the case in the literature, the authors operate a useful and meaningful distinction between the two in their analysis. This approach makes their contribution of interest to comparativists and to scholars of populism.

Most notably, the analysis reveals that personalization and concentration of power in the hands of charismatic leaders is not sufficient to achieve electoral survival. This paper highlights that endogenous factors are important in the decline of populist parties, especially if they do not develop proper organizational structures and rely instead on the personality of their leaders.

The Swiss People’s Party Looks for a New Leader

A note from Dr Daniele Albertazzi the Populism in Action Project’s Principal Investigator: “Our team is now working remotely in the current situation with Coronavirus. In the meantime, we feature Adrian Favero’s analysis of political developments concerning the Swiss People’s Party in Switzerland.”


With the resignation of Albert Rösti, the Swiss People’s Party is looking for a new president. It is proving an arduous process, as the selection committee is struggling to find a viable candidate.

So what are the issues and what is the desired profile for a leader? For the Populism in Action Project, I conducted interviews with party reps in Zurich, Bern, and Geneva. Their thoughts on the party’s stability and coherence point to three central considerations.

1. Organisational and Ideological Factionalism

Part of the base longs for the “good old times” and wants to see a hardliner at the top. The other side wants an opening, thematically and personally, for a change in direction.

There are also significant ideological cleavages between cantons. The SVP branches in Bern, Zurich, and Geneva have historically different political priorities, styles of communication, and cultural views.

So the new president needs to increase collaboration and information exchange between cantonal branches. He or she has to unite the party and to maintain a clear ideological orientation across all cantons.

The new leader has to communicate the SVP’s core issues, but needs to avoid an overly aggressive “anti-foreigners and anti-EU” rhetoric. The SVP must demonstrate that it cares not only about its key topics but also about a broader variety of issues that affect party members in different parts of Switzerland.

This will require a certain level of language skills, with the ability to speak German, French, and English as the minimum requirement for the new leader.

2. Organisational Intensity

The party operates with and depends upon a ramified network of activists and local units for the pursuit of political interests.

The SVP is an “instrument of agitation” with the linkage between party membership, discipline, and solidarity. Continuous party growth in local branches is needed to keep the advantage of a wide network from which to recruit activists.

However, party leadership is often perceived as a distant self-serving circle, and differences emerge between the visions of the local base and the leadership. So the new president must be present at the grassroots level and must visit local sections across Switzerland regularly. The new president has to sense what concerns the base and has to create a feeling of inclusiveness among members and activists. Party members are only willing to volunteer if they feel welcomed and involved.

3. Centralised Agenda Setting

The previous strong performance and success in national elections is often related to Christoph Blocher, who is described as a strong leader of a weak organisation that opposed the establishment. He personifies the rise and political change of the SVP and “achieved a sort of ‘godfather’ status” within his party.

Several interviewees referred to this importance but emphasized that the SVP needs to emancipate itself from the image as “Blocher’s party”. To achieve the transition, the new president has to develop the appropriate party profile and must be coherent in processing and preparing important political issues. He or she must anticipate topics and oversee a centralization of agenda-setting processes within the party leadership. As one representative said: “The larger a party is, the more tightly it must be led.”

However, this grasp of power should not ignore the existing decentralization of the Swiss political landscape. It should not exclude participation of members in the deliberations on the SVP’s official positions and on the regional autonomy of cantonal branches.

Nevertheless, to strengthen the post-Blocher profile of the SVP, the new leader needs to improve the party’s ability to foresee issues and to ensure their importance within the public agenda. This will boost the general image of the SVP as a solution-oriented player within Swiss politics.

To attract potential candidates, the SVP also needs to think about compensation. The job of party leader is traditionally not remunerated, which may prevent certain aspirants from showing interest. As one representative said. “In my opinion, if you want good people, you have to pay something.”

SVP members and representatives expect the new party leader to unite the party, to engage more with members, to discipline the cantons that lost most percentage points in the federal elections, to stick to the party line while focusing on a variety of topics instead of just the core issues, and to speak at least two official languages. Balancing these factors pertaining to ideological factionalism, organisational intensiveness, and centralized agenda-setting will make it difficult for the selection committee to present viable candidates.

Surprises in Switzerland’s Election: A Green Surge, More Women, and Decline for Populist SVP

By Adrian Favero (PiAP Switzerland focused Research Fellow) – this post originally appeared on EA Worldview

On October 20, about 5.3 million eligible voters in Switzerland were asked to elect the new Parliament. About 45.1% cast ballots, a turnout slightly lower than in previous years.

As several forecasts predicted, the major parties lost votes and the two green parties – the Greens and the Green Liberals – gained seats. However, some results were rather surprising, as the new distribution in the National Council, the Lower House of the Swiss Parliament, testifies.

Greens: Better Than Expected

As predicted, almost all over the country, more people voted for green parties than in 2015. But the anticipated green wave turned out to be a green tsunami.

The Greens (GPS) almost doubled their votes, surging by 6.1% to a 13.2% share, and gaining 17 seats in the National Council. This was an unprecedented surge in representation, topping the record of 15 additional seats, set by the right-wing populist party Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in 1999. The Green Liberal Party (GLP) also exceeded expected results, with a gain of 3.2% and nine more seats.

The current debate on climate change and the green parties’ “competence issue ownership” — as noted in my pre-election summary — motivated many citizens in the casting of their votes. The extent to which the so-called “Greta effect” will permanently change the party landscape remains to be seen, but it inevitably leads to discussion of a potential re-configuration of seats in the government.

But political shifts move slowly in Switzerland. Although the Greens have replaced the Christian Democrats (CVP) as the fourth biggest party, they may not be able to claim representation in the Federal Council for two reasons.

First, the Greens are not as well represented in the Council of States, the upper chamber, as they are in the National Council. Second, parties are usually expected to consolidate their election results, and these results are often reflected in the government only several years (or even decades) after electoral gains in the Parliament.

More Women

The National Council now has 84 women, 42% of the chamber. Switzerland is now second in Europe, behind Sweden, in women’s representation in the legislature.

In previous elections, it was usually parties on the left that fed the increase in women’s representation; however, in 2019, the share rose on both right and left. The proportion of women legislators in the Radical-Liberal Party (FDP) rose from 21.2% to 35.7%. The share in the SVP increased from 16.9% to 24.5%.

Losses for SVP and Social Democrats

The SVP suffered the greatest decline of all major parties. Never before has a party lost 12 seats, amid a fall in vote share by 3.8% for the populist party.

However, the SVP remains the strongest power in the National Council. And the second-placed Social Democrats (SP) suffered its worst result since the introduction of proportional representation in 1919. A post-election survey found many citizens who traditionally voted for the SP switched to one of the green parties.

What Now?

With the shifting party landscape, new co-operation between the Greens, the CVP, and the SP will be likely, aligning against an SVP which is still the largest party in Parliament.

However, it remains to be seen how this new constellation deals with unfinished issues such as health insurance costs and the future relations with the European Union.

It is too early for clear predictions — and we still await the second-round results in the Council of States, the upper Parliamentary chamber.

A Beginner’s Guide to Switzerland’s Elections

by Adrian Favero (PiAP Switzerland focused Research Fellow)

This article originally appeared on EA Worldview

The Swiss federal elections are set to take place on October 20. Voters will choose the 200 members of the National Council, the lower chamber of the Swiss Parliament, as well as 45 of 46 members of the Council of States, the upper chamber. MPs will serve from 2019 to 2023.

About 2/3rd of people residing in Switzerland are eligible to vote. Turnout is about 50%.

Political Background

Swiss direct democracy offers citizens extensive opportunities to exert political influence beyond the Parliamentary institutions. Shifts in election results are relatively moderate and had no consequences for government composition between 1959 and 2003.

However, boosted by becoming the strongest party after the federal election in 2003, the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) demanded a reconfiguration of the Federal Council and a second seat, at the expense of the substantially weakened Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP). This changed the “magic formula”, the distribution of seats in the government assigned to the biggest parties.

Over the last 40 years, the SVP’s gains have been at the expense of the two centrist parties, the Radical-Liberal Party (FDP) and the CVP. The SVP almost doubled its voter share between 1995 and 2015, from 14.9% to 29.4%.

The party’s electoral achievements are grounded in an increasing investment of material and human resources and an aggressive and populist transformation orchestrated by Zurich billionaire Christoph Blocher. There is also some polarization within the Swiss system, with parties on the side of the political spectrum, the Greens and the Socialists, gaining some votes.

Graph showing trends in electoral support for the major Swiss political parties over the last 50 years

Source: Federal Statistical Office

Competence Issues and the 2019 Election

Multiple surveys show the central political issues for the Swiss population are pension plans, unemployment, the rising cost of health insurance, climate change, immigration, and the relationship with the EU. Some of these concerns have been prevalent over a long period of time, such as pensions, health insurance, and unemployment. The salience of other issues, such as immigration, climate change, and economic uncertainty, depend on the current political debate.

In 2015, the SVP benefited from the mobilization of voters concerned of the large numbers of refugees, while the FDP was recognized as the party that best deals with economic uncertainties. This “competence issue ownership” gave each a boost, with voters assessing how well and how much a party would deal with a salient problem.

The emphasis on the role of issues is important for the Swiss 2019 elections. Current topics may play a role in shaping voters’ choice. Michael Hermann from the Sotomo Research Institute argues that the discussion around environmental protection and climate change may have a decisive impact on voters’ electoral choice, and forecasts seem to confirm this argument.

The SVP is expected to lose electoral support even if it remains the strongest party in Parliament. Its core topics of migration and the relationship with the European Union lost prominence, as ascending issues favor other parties’ ownership of competence. The Greens and the Green-Liberals are expected to gain considerably.

Status of major party support according to SRG Wahlbarometer 2019 going into the 2019 Swiss Federal Election versus their standing in 2015

SRG Wahlbarometer 2019

Of the other main parties, the Socialists are predicted to defend second place. The FDP and CVP are expected to lose support.

However, these numbers hardly constitute landslide gains and losses, and the expected results are only for the National Council. Due to cantonal strongholds and person-focused votes, the CVP and FDP are likely to remain the largest parties in the Council of States.