A couple of weeks ago, Swiss art aficionados started to flock to Martigny in the canton of Valais. Martigny is a relatively small town. But it boasts an exquisite art museum, which over the years has hosted a number of remarkable exhibitions. This time, it is particularly special. For the first time, art lovers have the opportunity to gain a broad overview of the work of two of Switzerland’s most important artists, Ferdinand Hodler (1853 to 1918) and Albert S. Anker (1831-1919), brought together under one roof. All of the paintings are from the private collection of Christoph Blocher. Christoph Blocher is not necessarily known as a patron of the arts. If he is known at all outside of the country, it is because of his reputation as one of Western Europe’s leading right-wing populist leaders.
Switzerland is a relatively small country, best known for its picturesque mountains and plush ski resorts, its precise luxury watches and refined chocolate, its discreet banks, private clinics and famous multi-millionaire expatriates — from Audrey Hepburn to Alain Delon, from Phil Collins to Tina Turner and the late French singer Johnny Hallyday. Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world, where Ferraris, Maseratis and, lately, Teslas raise little public attention. Its best-known cities, Zurich and Geneva, have routinely been among the world’s most livable cities. At the same time, Switzerland is not only routinely ranked among the most competitive countries in the world but also among the happiest.
Structural Factors: The Swiss Basis of a Populist Revolt
You would not know it if you lived in this country. For more than two decades, Switzerland has been in the grips of a major malaise, reflected in the dramatic surge of one of Western Europe’s most successful right-wing populist parties, the SVP (Swiss People’s Party; UDC [Union of the Center] in the French-speaking part of the country). The SVP is one of the oldest parties in Switzerland, traditionally representing the interests of the country’s rural community. Until recently, the Swiss party system was a paragon of stability, centered on four major parties reflecting the country’s historical sociopolitical cleavages: A socialist party on the left, a liberal party in the centre, a Christian Democratic party on the centre-right, and the SVP – traditionally the smallest of the four. Together, these four parties accounted for the vast majority of the votes as well as seats in the country’s parliament.
Historically, Switzerland has been a microcosm of the deep divides that plagued most of Europe’s history: rural resentment against the city (prominent examples being Basel and Bern), language (particularly between French-speaking “Romands” and the German-speaking majority), religious denomination (Catholics vs Protestants) and, last but not least, social class. In order to attenuate these divides and allow for a modicum of peaceful coexistence, the Swiss came up with an ingenious system of governance, commonly known as “consociationalism.” Simply put, this means getting all the relevant political forces on board via a super-grand coalition, composed of the four major political parties according to a “magic formula” which allocated two seats each to the three largest parties (socialists, liberals and Christian democrats) and one to the SVP. According to the agreement, decisions were to be taken consensually. The system guaranteed stability – and, in turn, depended on the stable relationship (in terms of the percentage of the vote received in national elections) between the four parties.
This system worked well, until the 1990s. Following the Swiss federal elections of 1991, the SVP started to soar in the polls. In 1991, the party had received 12 percent of the vote, largely in line with its results in the decades before. By the end of the decade, however, it had almost doubled its result. By 2015, the SVP garnered almost 30 percent of the vote, surpassing all other parties.
Christoph Blocher and the Rise of the SVP
The SVP’s dramatic gains were largely owed to Christoph Blocher, who started his political career in the Zurich branch of the SVP. A successful entrepreneur and one of the richest men in Switzerland, Christoph Blocher transformed the SVP into a successful radical right-wing populist party, centered upon two major issues – sovereignty linked to national independence and integration linked to the issue of immigration. In the process, the SVP became a model of how to effectively mobilize latent public sentiments and emotions, such as anger, resentment and nostalgia. Blocher displayed his talent to appeal to these emotions during one of the most trying challenges to Swiss self-understanding in recent memory – the controversy over Switzerland’s role during the Second World War. In the face of a full-scale attack against the country, particularly with regard to its acquisition of large amounts of gold from the German Reichsbank (or so-called ‘Nazi Gold’), Blocher promoted himself as the advocate of Swiss honor. In major speeches Blocher charged that Switzerland’s tarnished image had nothing to do with historical truth; it was a blatant attempt by Swiss “moralists” in politics and the media to denigrate Switzerland and its history in order to extort money from the Swiss.
With his defense of Switzerland’s reputation, Blocher reinforced his image as Switzerland’s premier patriot – determined, tenacious and intransigent when it comes to protecting the country’s independence, identity and national interests. Blocher gained this image as a result of his vocal opposition to Switzerland’s candidacy for EU membership and particularly his successful campaign against Switzerland’s joining the European Economic Area of 1992. The campaign was led by Blocher’s Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland (German acronym: AUNS), founded in 1986 to defend the country’s sovereignty and neutrality.
The Swiss confederation is a highly decentralized country where the constituent units, the 26 cantons and half-cantons, jealously guard their rights and powers. At the same time, Switzerland boasts an extreme form of direct democracy, where the ultimate decision-making power rests with the people — via referenda and popular initiatives — rather than their representatives in parliament. This guarantees, as the AUNS website insists, that decisions are made “on behalf of the people rather than that of the politicians”. Even before its dramatic surge in the polls, the SVP exerted considerable influence on major decisions by threatening to seize the popular vote. With Blocher’s rise to prominence in the Zurich SVP, referenda and popular initiatives became a central means for the party to promote its views on major issues, such as EU membership and particularly migration and naturalization.
It was the latter, which established the SVP as Switzerland’s most important voice of right-wing populism. As in most other countries in Western Europe over the past three decades, the appeal to nativist sentiments (i.e., “our people first”) proved a politically highly successful strategy – and for good reason. Switzerland is host to a large foreign population (in 2019, a quarter of residents were foreigners). In some cities and towns, such as Geneva, Lausanne and Lugano, foreigners make up more than a third of the population. Most of the foreign population come from neighboring EU countries, which, ironically, only fueled nativist resentment. In the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, for instance, resentment against the wave of foreign workers who come daily from neighboring Italy has been instrumental in propelling the Lega dei ticinesi into a central position in the canton. In Geneva, a few years ago, resentment against French frontaliers (commuters) saw a rise in the political fortunes of another anti-immigrant movement, Mouvement Citoyens Genevois. Attempts to extend its influence beyond Geneva, into the rest of Suisse romande, however, largely failed.
Not so the SVP, however. In the wake of the electoral success of the Zurich-inspired programmatic turn in the 1990s, new cantonal SVP groups were formed, most notably in Valais and Neuchâtel, both in Suisse romande. Led by Blocher’s acolytes, perhaps most prominently the flamboyant Oscar Freysinger from Valais, they quickly implanted themselves on the cantonal level. Nowadays, the SVP has an established presence in each of the 26 cantons.
On the Campaign Trail: Christoph Blocher and the Weaponisation of Nativism
Christoph Blocher, like other radical right-wing populist leaders, has cultivated the image of the “people’s tribune” who articulates the concerns and worries of ordinary people , who dares to say out loud what ordinary people only dare to think. And like other major radical right-wing populist leaders, such as Umberto Bossi or the late Jöeg Haider, he has managed to cultivate and preserve the image of an outsider, despite the fact that he and his party were and continue to be an intricate part of the Swiss political establishment. Yet in his speeches and interviews, Blocher never got tired of attacking the “class politique” for allegedly selling out the country and blatantly ignoring the will of the people. Blocher’s charge was simple and straightforward: In Switzerland, the “sovereign is the people” – at least on paper; in reality, popular sovereignty rests with the classe politique, including big companies and interest groups, which constantly try to outmaneuver and “trick” the people. The ultimate goal, Blocher claimed, of the class politique was to usurp power and dictate its will to the people, even if it violated the constitution.
Radical right-wing populism is an ideational amalgam of populism and nativism. In general, the radial populist right’s success in recent decades has largely depended on their ability to mobilize nativist sentiments. Here, the SVP under Blocher has been paradigmatic. Starting in the 1990s, the party both adopted prominent nativist tropes from abroad and, in turn, produced visual and verbal material targeting foreigners and migrants, which proved highly influential outside of the country also. The most famous examples by far were the posters produced for the “minaret initiative” of 2009, which banned the new construction of minarets in the country. One poster depicted a map of Switzerland sprouting numerous minarets reminiscent of missiles pointing to the sky; another prominent poster depicted a chador-clad woman in front of a Swiss flag riddled with minarets. Both posters were clearly intended to provoke a strong emotional response.
The success of the initiative provided a significant boost to the SVP. Ironically, ahead of the vote, Christoph Blocher was reluctant to give his support, suggesting that the demand was too radical. After the vote, however, he quickly adopted the anti-Islamic theme, lending support to the “fight against Islamization”. He also suggested that Muslims who intended to become Swiss citizens should express in writing their distance to Koran passages that stood in violation of human rights. In the years that followed, the party’s anti-Islamic agenda was spearheaded by Oscar Freysinger who made the “defense of the West” a central concern of his political career.
For the moment, however, things have calmed down with concern for the SVP. Both Blocher and Freysinger have largely withdrawn from public life and the SVP has reached its electoral ceiling, which is around 25 percent of the vote. Moreover, Christoph Blocher’s legacy as a populist leader is mixed. He set out to prevent Switzerland from getting entangled in supranational institutions, such as the EU and the United Nations. He succeeded with regard to the former, failed with respect to the latter. Blocher set out to revolutionize the SVP, transforming it from an old-fashioned rural party to a modern populist one that appeals to a broad segment of the Swiss electorate. He ultimately failed, however, to revolutionize the Swiss system. It is hardly a secret that Blocher never was a great fan of consociationalism, given the strong voice the system accords to the center-left (socialist and Christian democrat). Under Blocher, the SVP made great efforts to undermine the system by promoting polarization. Blocher himself was elected to the Swiss government in 2003 where he received a ministerial portfolio for the ministry of justice. As minister, he became quickly known for his confrontational course towards his ministerial colleagues – in a system of government based on accommodation and collegiality. Confrontation, however, failed to shake up or reform consociationalism. Instead, it cost Blocher his position in the federal government in the aftermath of the 2008 election.
The rise of Blocher to national prominence together with the dramatic surge of the SVP within a span of a decade laid open widespread public sentiments of anxiety, malaise, anger, resentment and nostalgia simmering under the surface of an affluent and seemingly content society. There are numerous grievances – genuine and often quite legitimate – that have fueled political discontent and disenchantment. Most of them stem from structural change and its unintended consequences – from urban sprawl to the mushrooming of strip malls and outlets, from crammed highways to jam-packed trains during rush-hour. And, last but not least, there is the question of affordable housing, which in Switzerland has become an oxymoron, particularly in the metropolitan areas where the price of an apartment – forget about a house – is increasingly beyond the range of most ordinary Swiss. Under the circumstances, radical populism in Switzerland is likely to persist, with or without Christoph Blocher.
Dr Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich. See his profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).