The 'National Conservatives': An Urbane Publisher Becomes the Populist Voice of Switzerland
Swiss editor and publisher Roger Köppel is loud, shrill and provocative -- traits not usually associated with his countrymen. The right-wing positions he takes do not appeal to a majority of people in Switzerland, and yet he is viewed abroad as the new, authentic voice of the Swiss.
Roger Köppel is driving in the mountains. At some point his navigation system loses its signal, and he misses his turn. After taking two wrong exits, turning around, backtracking, turning around again, getting lost on dirt roads and private driveways, he finally gives up, and parks in the middle of a farmyard.
And there he is, one of the intellectual leaders of the Swiss right wing, editor-in-chief of Weltwoche, sitting in his silver Volvo station wagon with a Zürich license plate -- the epitome of civilization -- waiting for his navigation system to talk to him.
He's on his way to a country estate halfway between Zürich and the Urschweiz region, a place we cannot identify because the small business owners he plans to meet are adamant about remaining anonymous. He intends to give a talk on "Liberalism and the Mountains," and to tell the farmers in his audience that they are the great keepers of freedom in Switzerland, as well as true patriots. "Mountain air is liberating," his slogan reads.
Köppel looks around. The farm has no sign of life, not even a dog barking. Suddenly he ducks behind the steering wheel and hisses, "Watch out, the farmer's about to come outside and point his rifle at me." He grins, knowing that he can laugh about the people he is about to declare heroes.
Roger the Un-Swiss
Köppel is a man in his mid-40s who seems eternally young, with slightly rumpled hair and round, metal-rimmed glasses. He is remarkably slim, and he's wearing a trademark expensive-looking suit. Köppel looks out of place in a rural setting. The countryside is the home of the Swiss People's Party, or SVP, which has spent the last 20 years using its opposition to Europe, immigration and the liberal market economy to become Switzerland's strongest party.
But Köppel, the urban journalist, has dedicated himself to both this popular party and its leader, Christoph Blocher -- a contradiction that has earned him a reputation beyond Switzerland's borders. Three and a half years ago he bought Switzerland's Weltwoche, a liberal, left-leaning weekly newspaper, smart, stolid and politically correct, and turned it into a conservative, right-wing opinion magazine.
As the magazine's editor-in-chief and publisher, he rarely disagrees with the SVP in opinion pieces, though he's not a party member. He's an embodiment of the polemical right-wing intellectual, a man who, in small, neutral Switzerland, of all places, expresses right-wing sentiments in a way his countrymen haven't seen before. "All German cabinet ministers who cross the Swiss border ought to be arrested," Köppel wrote, after German authorities purchased a CD containing stolen data from numbered Swiss bank accounts. "By buying the CD, Germany becomes a receiver of stolen goods," he says on talk shows. "The German government spends millions to encourage informers to break Swiss law."
Köppel is loud, shrill and provocative, which makes him utterly atypical among the Swiss. He polemicizes against abuse of the social welfare system, immigrant crime, feminism and Europe. When he appears on television, he speaks more sharply and eloquently than many politicians. In early February, the cover of his magazine featured a caricature of German Chancellor Angela Merkel carrying a whip and riding toward Swiss Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz. For Köppel, the Swiss referendum against minarets is "not an expression of fear, but of courage." He writes, "The minaret is the visible symbol of Islamic conquest."
What motivates Roger Köppel? Is he merely out to provoke, or does he truly believe what he says and writes? Does he want attention, or real recognition? Is he still a journalist, or has he already become a politician?
Believing in Blocher
Later on the same day, after his navigation system has guided him safely through the hills, Köppel stands in a conference room at the country estate, facing an audience of craftsmen, merchants, small business owners, hospital directors and furniture dealers.
Köppel gives a speech invoking the myth of a Switzerland that many commentators would now argue is in crisis -- the Switzerland of banking secrecy, the legendary Rütli oath (of national independence), and the vigilant William Tell. Köppel speaks like a politician, sharply criticizing the dominance of public life by a "mainstream" that no longer believes in Switzerland's traditional image. Why do the Swiss love their freedom so much? "Because they live in the inhospitable mountains and, therefore, are consciously determined to be responsible for themselves," he says. He praises direct democracy and the intelligence of ordinary people. One of Köppel's contradictions is that he, a member of the elite, is here criticizing the country's elite.
At the end of his presentation, after his audience has applauded, a man raises his hand and asks Köppel whether he could imagine being part of the Swiss government in a few years. "I would have expected more critical questions from an audience that reads Weltwoche," says Köppel -- and leaves it at that.
Köppel was once a liberal, left-leaning journalist, first as sports editor for the daily newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and later as culture editor for the Tages-Anzeiger, another daily. He soon became editor-in-chief of the respected weekend supplement Das Magazin, where he attracted attention with his apolitical and original journalistic style.
But one day he met Christoph Blocher, the leader of the SVP and the father figure of the Swiss right, a man despised by those in Köppel's circle. It was the spring of 2000, and Köppel had planned to conduct a short, half-hour interview. But the conversation lasted three hours and, by the time it ended, Köppel says, he still had questions for Blocher. He told him that he wanted to meet with him again and write about him -- positively, unlike everyone else.
Köppel became an admirer of Blocher. He reveres him now for his natural authority and for his achievement in building a business empire worth billions, while still dominating Swiss politics. "Imagine we were sitting in a room with Blocher and had a task to solve," Köppel says. "I can guarantee you that, no matter what the task was, we would always give it to Blocher first." He admires Blocher's approach to management, in which employees are required to be subordinate and make no demands. They cannot ask their superiors questions because answering the questions would consume energy. Instead, they are required to submit a "petition."
- Part 1: An Urbane Publisher Becomes the Populist Voice of Switzerland
- Part 2: 'Why Are Women So Left-Wing?'
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