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?

Daniele Albertazzi Interviewed by Agence France Presse

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Daniele Albertazzi was recently interviewed by the Agence France Presse wire agency’s Alvise Armellini about the prospects for an alliance in the European Parliament between Poland’s PiS party, Hungary’s Fidesz party and Italy’s Lega party. 

He said that:

it was “not unrealistic” that PiS, Fidesz and Salvini’s League could form a common European Parliament grouping, adding: “There are strong practical and financial incentives to do it.” – adding that this could happen despite the lack of ideological cohesion between right-wing forces on some issues – “They may say similar things on the EU, that it has too much power, but when it comes to things like sharing asylum seekers… the (Dutch) PVV and Orban have very different interests from Salvini,”

You can read a full English language version of the syndicated article here on the Barron’s Magazine website.

Deep Dive Politics: Italy and Populism in Europe with Daniele Albertazzi

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was the guest on Deep Dive Politics World Unfiltered Youtube channel and podcast on 20/03/21

You can view the video here.

You can listen to the podcast here.

In the course of a discussion with EA Worldview Editor Prof. Scott Lucas, Daniele Albertazzi considers questions relating to current political developments in Italy around the formation of the Draghi government, how Italy’s populist radical right political forces are responding to it, and general questions relating to the origins, nature, and ongoing development of the populist radical right political phenomenon.

Mario Draghi’s governing bandwagon has been voted in. Expect a bumpy ride

By PiAP’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi and the University of Turin’s Dr. Davide Pellegrino. This post first appeared on The Loop, the EPRC’s Political Science Blog on 23/02/21.

On 13 January 2020, Matteo Renzi, leader of the personal, centrist party, Italia Viva (IV), withdrew his ministers from Giuseppe Conte’s second government. This triggered a government crisis that would end Conte’s time as Prime Minister.

Renzi was hoping to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party (PD) and its governing ally the Five Star Movement (M5S), restoring some visibility to his ailing party.

Though Renzi managed to get rid of Conte, he failed to give Italy a government that made a break with the past. Indeed, as the dust has settled, ‘government crisis’ has given way to yet more political continuity.

The usual suspects, sneaking in the back door

New PM Mario Draghi is a former head of the European Central Bank, with no previous direct involvement in politics. This clearly qualifies him as a technocrat. Yet his executive is staffed by many who are not just from the parties backing him, but appear to have been picked by them. Government positions have been gifted to the usual party insiders.

Draghi’s executive is staffed by as many as 15 political figures, alongside eight independents. This mirrors the size of the parliamentary groups that have jumped on his bandwagon. The executive is composed of five ministers from the M5S, and three each from the PD, League and Forza Italia. Parliamentary minnows gain one ministry each. See the table below.

A table show the political composition of Mario Draghi's new cabinet. It lists each new cabinet minister by name and their party affiliation, whilst also stating which party held the ministry prior to Draghi forming a government in the 2nd half of February 2021

Expelled by Renzi’s scheming, some of the usual suspects are taking revenge by sneaking in through the back door. Indeed, almost all ‘political’ ministers in the new government have already served in centre-left and centre-right governments. Several have been allowed to continue in the roles they held under Conte, while a few held ministerial positions years ago under Silvio Berlusconi.

Five Star Movement: anti-establishment no more

This has created an impossible situation for the populist M5S. It has received less than half the ministries it had controlled under the previous government, down from 10 to 4. Now, it must govern alongside ministers from Berlusconi’s hated governments.

Since the 2018 election, the M5S has reluctantly agreed to govern alongside almost all major Italian parties. Worse, it is now backing a former head of the European Central Bank as PM, having repeatedly rejected the idea that ‘technocrats’ be allowed to rule. This is hard to explain to the party’s grassroots. A considerable number of M5S MPs and senators refused to back Draghi’s government in Parliament. Its decision to back Draghi now may lead to a party split.

League: the elephant in the room

Unlike the M5S, the League won’t struggle to gain support from its members and electorate for backing Draghi. This is particularly the case now that the party controls the Ministry of Economic Development (see table). The League will enjoy a seat at the top table as the considerable amount of money coming from the EU via the Recovery Fund will be allocated to various projects. Unlike the M5S, the League’s problem is not ideological but all about competition within the right.

Brothers of Italy can feel smug about its consistent refusal to govern with the left, pointing to the League’s hypocrisy in cosying up to its former enemies

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the populist radical right party Brothers of Italy (FdI), will remain in opposition. She has an effective story to tell the electorate. According to the polls, she has been on an upward trajectory since 2019, much of it at the League’s expense. FdI will now feel smug about its consistent refusal to govern with the left. It can point to the League’s hypocrisy in cosying up to its former enemies.

FdI does not need to grow hugely to claim leadership of the right-wing coalition that fought the 2018 general election. It now attracts 17% of the vote, against the League’s 23%. If, as is likely, the same right-wing coalition as in 2018 is formed for the 2023 general election, and were it to win, then Meloni could, in the event of the FdI securing just one vote more than the League, claim the prime ministership.

As the official opposition in the period to come, FdI will get plenty of television coverage. The party will also chair important Parliamentary committees, including the one overseeing the public service broadcaster RAI.

A thorn in their side

The League is in an impossible situation. It will probably keep ‘one foot in and one foot out of government‘, becoming a thorn in Draghi’s side. The League will obstruct initiatives the right-wing electorate may find tough to stomach, although it lacks the power to block them entirely. For each percentage point the party loses, pressure will mount for the leadership to protest more loudly. If FdI continues to grow, the pressure will be even greater.

Governing with a heterogenous majority of sworn enemies responsible for managing enormous sums of money from the EU’s Recovery Fund was never going to be easy

So, expect Salvini to engage in much infighting during the months ahead. He will choose his enemies and friends in government with great care. In fact, the show has already begun. Before Draghi’s first speech in Parliament, Salvini attacked the Minister of Health and his collaborators over the possibility of a new lockdown.

Governing with a heterogenous majority of sworn enemies responsible for managing enormous sums of money from the EU’s Recovery Fund was never going to be easy. But the problems besetting the M5S and League make that situation decidedly worse. Infighting between the governing parties looks likely to be a permanent feature of the Draghi government.

“This is how you fuel resentment towards the political establishment” Daniele Albertazzi Discusses Italy’s Technocratic Governments on Al Jazeera English

On 16th February Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Daniele Albertazzi was quoted in “Cautious optimism as ‘Super Mario’ takes on Italy’s crises” an article by Aljazeera English’s Ylenia Gostoli.

In it he comments on the implications of Italy’s traditions of technocratic government:

“I think it is questionable that every time there is a crisis, Italian politicians pretend to take three steps back and put forward these saviour figures… This is how you destroy the idea of a political class that is accountable towards its electorate for the choices it makes. Politics cannot be there just when everything goes well. Imagine a surgeon leaving the operating room every time things get critical. This is how you fuel resentment towards the political establishment. Politicians pretending decisions that are made are not political decisions, that it’s just the way it should be done.”

The article can be read in full here.

Daniele Albertazzi Comments on the Formation of the New Italian Government in Brazil’s Folha De S.Paulo

On 13th February 2021, the Brazilian news review Folha De S.Paulo published a news feature based around comments from Daniele Albertazzi on the formation of Italy’s new government and how the decision by Matteo Salvini and the League Party he leads to support it, might lead to further realignment on the right of the country’s politics if the Brothers of Italy Party benefit from not backing the technocratic ministry of Mario Draghi.

Daniele Albertazzi summarises his contribution to the article saying:

The League’s “conversion” to pro-EU positions is not really surprising. They have always used “the European question” strategically since the party was founded.

The full article can be read here (in Portuguese)

“Super Mario?” Daniele Albertazzi Provides Comment to the New Statesman on the Formation of Italy’s New Government

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Daniele Albertazzi is quoted in “Can Super Mario Draghi Save Italy?” an article by Ido Vock, the New Statesman’s International Correspondent published on Friday 12th February 2021. In addition to be available online (see link at the bottom of the page) it also appears in the print edition from that date.

Daniele Albertazzi said:

“There is a tradition of the political parties stepping back at a moment of crisis and putting someone in place precisely because they are not a politician… The message you’re sending is basically that you can only manage the country during good times.” Such maneuvers fuel a culture of political mistrust, he added.

Read the full article here (paywall)

“Shades of solidarity: Comparing Scottish and Flemish responses to Catalonia” Published

Populism in Action’s Belgium (Flanders) focused Research Fellow Dr. Judith Sijstermans, along with co-author Dr. Coree Brown Swan, published “Shades of solidarity: Comparing Scottish and Flemish responses to Catalonia” in Regional & Federal Studies and article looking back at the 2017 Catalan independence referendum through the lens of international solidarity.

Dr. Judith Sijstermans told us:

The article considers whether and how Scottish and Flemish nationalists, who also seek independence, reacted to the Catalan referendum. They find that both parties displayed solidarity with Catalonia, through speaking and acting collectively alongside Catalan nationalist counterparts.

Although previous attempts to increase regional influence in the European Union failed, this case of collective action highlights that connections between Europe’s sub-state nationalists remain and that this network can be mobilized to promote sub-state autonomy. However, solidarity was not unconditional. For both the SNP and the N-VA, solidarity was not distinguishable from the parties’ own independence processes. As such, the SNP was cautious in its approach and careful to distance itself from any claims for a unilateral declaration of independence. Meanwhile, the N-VA expressed solidarity more intensely as a way of bolstering its nationalist credentials while in a governing coalition. Solidarity, and the way it is used by other sub-state nationalists, may again become salient as a second Scottish referendum remains on the agenda of the Scottish Government.

Read the article here

Read their blog post accompanying the article here on the Centre for Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh website

Daniele Albertazzi Provides Comment in the Finance Times on What the New Italian Government Portends for the Country’s Populist Radical Right

On 5th February 2021 Daniele Albertazzi, the Populism in Action Project’s Principal Investigator, provided comment to the Financial Times journalists Miles Johnson and Davide Ghiglione for their article “Mario Draghi’s search for support leaves Matteo Salvini with painful choice”. A piece exploring what the implications of the replacement of the Italian government led by the Five Star Movement aligned Giuseppe Conti, with one led by the non-party “technocrat” Mario Draghi, might be for the country’s populist radical right parties.

Daniele Albertazzi reflected that:

“This is a difficult moment for Salvini… There are many in his party that will be very supportive of someone like Draghi trying to kickstart the economy. It is very clear from polling data that Meloni is a big threat to Salvini, and she is taking most of her support from the League.”

The full piece (paywalled) can be read here.    

Daniele Albertazzi Explores with Podcaster Whether “Populism is Here to Stay?”

On 22nd January Daniele Albertazzi – the Populism in Action Project’s Principal Investigator – joined Monique Camarra the host of the podcast Coffee Talk Politics to discuss the question “is populism here to stay?”

In the course of the hour long programme their conversation touched upon:

-The Populism in Action Project’s research and findings.

-The development of right-wing populist parties

-And a consideration of the situation of “mainstream” parties responding to the challenge posed by populist radical right parties.

You can listen to the full podcast here.