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In Switzerland, hints that the far right has run out of steam

Swiss Green Party President Regula Rytz (center) reacted with party members as the first results of Switzerland’s general election Sunday were announced in the capital city, Bern.
Swiss Green Party President Regula Rytz (center) reacted with party members as the first results of Switzerland’s general election Sunday were announced in the capital city, Bern.Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

SEELISBERG, Switzerland — Far-right and populist parties have seized influence and power across Europe in recent years, but Swiss voters appear poised to deliver a rebuke in parliamentary elections Sunday to one of the first to gain political traction, the Swiss People’s Party.

In the last parliamentary balloting, in 2015, the Swiss People’s Party won close to 30 percent of the popular vote by stirring up alarm over the migrant crisis in Europe, and pushing fiercely nationalist positions on Muslims and the European Union.

In the past, to support a referendum on expelling migrants who commit a crime, the party put up posters showing white sheep kicking black sheep off a Swiss flag. And in calling for a ban on building minarets at mosques, party posters depicted the towers as missiles.


The party is following a similar playbook this year. Before the voting Sunday, it released a poster showing worms — one of them ringed by the stars of the EU flag — gnawing on a rosy red Swiss apple. “Are we going to let Switzerland be destroyed by leftists, do-gooders and pro-Europeans?” it asked.

But even here in conservative Seelisberg, a picture-postcard Alpine village that reflects Switzerland’s traditions of independence and resistance to foreign intruders, some now say the party is out of step with the times, economically and environmentally.

“They want to pull everyone back to the mountains,” said Hans Aschwanden, a local cheese maker whose family has lived in the area for at least 400 years and who represents hundreds of members of a national cheese association. Its members have profited from easy access to European markets, Aschwanden said. “We don’t want to go back to that,” he added, referring to a more isolated past.

Specialists have predicted that the Swiss People’s Party could lose 10 seats in the lower house of parliament, although it would still be the biggest party in the 200-member body. If that holds true, the party would still hold two of the seven portfolios in the federal government. In Switzerland’s political system, which is geared to promoting compromise, portfolios are also currently held by the center-left Social Democrats and by two center-right parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals.


The parliamentary campaign has been dominated by climate change issues, partly prompted by environmental protests led by the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Opinion polls have suggested that the main winners will be the left-wing Green and Green Liberal parties, which have long advocated environmental issues and which could increase their share of the popular vote by several percentage points. Centrist parties, too, have taken up the cause to protect their vote share.

The Swiss People’s Party, eschewing slicker campaigns mounted by the far right in neighboring Austria, has scornfully played down national green initiatives, and looks set to lose 2 to 3 percentage points, polls suggest.

“This strange, fascinating girl is somehow hypnotizing and monopolizing the interest of many people in Switzerland,” Roger Köppel, a prominent Swiss People’s Party lawmaker, said of Thunberg. “It’s been difficult to get our message across.”

Even if the far-right party retains its dominant position in parliament, stronger representation of left-leaning parties will add impetus for more action on climate policy, said Pascal Sciarini, a professor of political science at the University of Geneva. Switzerland has committed to cutting carbon emissions to zero by 2050, and parliament is scheduled to take up more climate items, including a proposal for taxing air travel.


Activists express hope that the action will spread to wider issues. “There’s a huge window of opportunity in this election and in the months after when more progressive forces are in parliament,” said Flavia Kleiner, a founder of Operation Libero, a crowdfunded and social media-savvy group that seeks to galvanize public support for liberal causes and institutions. “We want progressives to develop a new vision for Switzerland,” she added.

The bigger question is whether the result will signal a shift in Swiss politics away from the right-leaning agenda of the last 30 years or be merely a reflection of circumstances peculiar to this election.

“We will see,” Köppel said. The Swiss People’s Party has experienced drops in popular support in the past, but came back stronger than ever. Soon after Sunday’s election, debate will resume on a contentious agreement laying out a framework for relations with the EU. There is nothing more important to his party, Köppel said, than defending the country’s independence from the bloc and what he called the worst deal Switzerland had struck in 700 years.

The party has called for a referendum next May on a motion to end the free movement of people, which is enshrined in EU policy. If successful, it would lead to the unraveling of more than 20 agreements that govern Switzerland’s trade and economic ties with its major trading partners in Europe.


Still, there are warning signals that the far-right party’s influence may be weakening fundamentally. The party has been on the losing side of six of the last seven national referendums, including on issues reflecting its core values. Among them were a vote this May that approved the tightening of gun rules to align with the European Union, one in 2018 that rejected giving Swiss law precedence over international treaties, and one in 2016 that opposed the automatic expulsion of immigrants for even minor offenses.

Those results pointed to growing engagement by younger voters who previously were politically apathetic, said Kleiner, the liberal activist. Support for the Swiss People’s Party is strongest among those aged 50 and over. By contrast, the Green Party’s support is strongest among those under 40.