In Switzerland, unemployment is well below neighboring countries; there is a stability that contrasts with the chaos in many other parts of the world. Sunday’s right-wing vote was a conservative vote to keep the status quo. After all, in politics as in sports, the first rule has always been: “Never change a winning game.”
The Swiss people voted for members of the national parliament on Sunday. Although participation was low – well below 50% of eligible voters participated – and the only definitive vote was for the lower house, there is no question that the People’s Party was victorious, gaining 29% of the popular vote while increasing their representation in the House of Representatives by 11 seats. Given that the right-wing Liberal/Radical Party also gained 3 seats, the Swiss voters clearly reflected the conservative trend throughout Europe.
The low level of participation is puzzling. As a country which prides itself on democratic participation through referendum and initiatives, one would expect a higher turnout. In the same election in 2011, the turnout was 49%, one of the lowest in the world. This time it was even lower. Although experts claim that the weak participation this time was due to the lack of exceptional issues, the fact that the Swiss people vote regularly through their direct democracy may paradoxically weaken voting in national elections, a form of voter fatigue.
What were the issues that led to the success of the right-wing parties? The first must be the fear of mass immigration. Already in the February 9, 2014, vote for a controversial anti-immigration initiative, the Swiss had shown their fear of a mass influx of migrants.
Recent scenes of hundreds of thousands fleeing Syria and marching to Germany only increased apprehensions about the small alpine country being overwhelmed. The People’s Party’s position of strong nationalism easily resonated in the face of the chaos in the corridor from the South northward. The fact that many fleeing the war in Syria were Muslims confirmed the anxiety manifest in a November 2009 referendum in which a constitutional amendment banning the construction of new minarets was approved by 57.5% of the participating voters.
The second major issue was the relationship between Switzerland and Europe. This followed the trend of the February 2014 vote. By a small majority of the popular vote, Swiss citizens in 2014 insisted that the government renegotiate its bilateral agreement with the European Union (EU) on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it.
The consequence of this vote was to threaten other bilateral agreements with the EU. Negotiations on the free movement of people as well as other bilateral issues have been stalled since that vote and are a major concern for the government and the population.
The People’s Party has consistently opposed stronger ties between Switzerland and the EU. Sunday’s vote reflected growing dissatisfaction with closer ties, obviously influenced by the failures of the EU to deal decisively with the Greek crisis and growing nationalist fervor such as in Great Britain and the Visegrad countries – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Sunday’s vote was obviously anti-Europe.
Switzerland is located in the middle of Western Europe. Although not a member of the EU, its major trading partner, its politics are highly influenced by what goes on around it. The migration crisis and the failure of the EU to deal efficiently with its internal problems have contributed to Switzerland’s sense of successful isolation.
Change, which drives all successful enterprises, seems limited to the business sphere. “The politics of perpetual fear,” in David Remnick’s term in a recent column in the New Yorker, continues to be an important motor for politics.