By Mathieu von Rohr
For 32 years, the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP) had experienced nothing but success. Their shrill posters -- full of virulent critiques of "mass immigration" and broadsides against Islam -- had attracted more and more voters, making the SVP the strongest party in Switzerland.
But in elections on Sunday, support for the SVP dropped for the first time in over three decades. The party, under the leadership of Christoph Blocher, lost some 3.6 percent relative to elections in 2007, with preliminary results showing a 25.3 percent result for the party. As a result, the SVP will have to vacate eight seats in parliament. The party remains the largest in Switzerland, but its aura of invincibility has been broken.
One explanation for the loss of support isn't difficult to find. A group of neo-liberal parliamentarians broke off from the SVP to form a new party called the BDP. In its first ever national elections, the BDP received 5.2 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.
But during the campaign, the SVP also seemed short on ideas. In the past, the party had set the agenda with its increasingly emphatic rejection of all immigration. Swiss centrist parties were constantly having to scramble to catch up. Furthermore, the SVP manufactured an image for itself as a maverick party outside the mainstream.
During this year's campaign, however, the party's demand for a referendum against "mass immigration" made the SVP seem almost like a caricature of itself. Despite widespread fear within the Swiss population of extensive immigration from the European Union due to the gloomy economic outlook, the SVP's campaign failed to gain traction.
Indeed, even the party's political godfather Blocher, 71, had to concede defeat. In his own campaign for a seat in the Council of States, the upper chamber of Swiss parliament, he came in third place. Blocher is no longer the official head of the party, having passed the reins on to Toni Brunner. But without him, the SVP seems to have lost some of its vigour.
The SVP's stagnation, however, wasn't the only development of note in Sunday's elections. Swiss voters, it would seem, have begun migrating back toward the center -- but with more parties to choose from, that center has become splintered.
The two traditional parties, the Christian Democrats (CVP) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), have long been in a state of crisis. The FDP dominated Swiss politics for decades following the 1848 founding of the state. But just as in recent elections, neither of the parties was able to garner more than 15 percent of the votes this year.
In the past, it was the SVP which profited the most from the crisis in the center. But this year, two new parties popped up in the center of the Swiss political landscape -- and together they were able to secure more than 10 percent of the vote. In addition to the BDP, which found significant support in rural areas, a new party calling itself the Green-Liberals attracted over 5 percent of the vote. The party pairs business-oriented economics with environmental sensitivities and found success in cities and suburbs. As a result, the Swiss Green Party suffered a significant defeat on Sunday, losing a quarter of its seats in parliament.
The Political Realities
The two new parties are full of unknown faces and their positions are likewise not always fully developed. But their success shows just how great the yearning is in Switzerland for promising centrist parties.
Still, Sunday's results are not likely to make the country any easier to govern. The seven-member executive council, which runs Switzerland, has always been filled according to a proportional system. The three largest parties would receive two seats each with the smallest getting one. In recent years, however, that system has become imbalanced. Four years ago, Swiss parliament declined to appoint Blocher to the executive council, electing Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf instead. She was then expelled from the SVP for accepting the seat -- and went on to co-found the BDP.
That means that Switzerland's largest party only has one seat in the executive council, while the much smaller FDP has two, as do the Social Democrats. The CVP and the BDP each has one. Indeed, this year's election results have already generated calls for a reshuffle in order to reflect the political realities in Switzerland.
Either way, Swiss politics isn't likely to change much as a result given the country's unique form of direct democracy. Major decisions are still made in Switzerland by referendum -- and there, despite its loss of support on Sunday, the SVP still has the upper hand. Not only does Blocher remain a formidable campaigner, but, having become wealthy as an chemical industry magnate, he has shown a willingness to refill party coffers when necessary.
Indeed, just last week, the party announced that it was well on its way to putting yet another referendum on the country's political calendar. The SVP has collected the 100,000 signatures necessary to force a vote on its "initiative against mass immigration."
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