The Problem with the People’s Party

This is Ivan S. (name der Redaktion bekannt). Ivan lives with his wife and young son in a dingy little apartment in an old building in a small town outside a small city in Switzerland, an Ausländerghetto filled with asylum-seekers and semi-skilled foreign workers. Ivan has held the occasional odd job, but most of his time these days is spent on low level criminal activity for the Swiss arm of one or another criminal organization with ties to the Balkan peninsula: petty thievery, drug dealing, armed lookout and intimidation, transport. If it involves breaking the law with only marginal autonomy, Ivan’s probably got his fingers in it.

In his copious free time, Ivan races his black BMW 318i. Anywhere and everywhere. Autobahn, city streets, school zones, doesn’t matter. Come to think of it, it’s probably the racing that will eventually get Ivan deported to live with his grandmother, who lives back in Serbia, collecting checks from the Swiss disability scheme, due to some dodgy paperwork on file with the authorities here.

I have basically nothing in common with Ivan. First off, he doesn’t actually exist, and I’m reasonably certain I do. He seems like kind of an asshole, and I try hard to be nice. (Okay, I’ve run from the cops once, but that’s another story, and I’m not the guy who was firing Roman candles at unmarked police cars, I’m just the guy who drove across the bridge to buy them.)

But we are both, according to the xenophobic right in Switzerland, Ausländer (for the Americans in the room, imagine this as “Furr’ner” with the worst Deep South, don’t-let-the-sun-set-on-you-here-boy accent you can muster). Now, now, it will be quickly clarified, don’t worry, you’re an American, which makes you good Ausländer. Ivan is bad Ausländer. We like good Ausländer.

The problem is, when it comes to the tone it sets, to how I feel as part of Swiss society, the distinction doesn’t matter. Xenophobia is xenophobia. People who are from here are better than people who are not. Exceptions come after that. By taking the nationalist tack — a common tactic for a party without actual ideas, it should be noted — the Swiss right wing, exemplified by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), unwittingly aligns the interests of good and bad Ausländer. It brings us to feel something like sympathy for Ivan. There’s a great distance between us, but we get the same sneer from the Migrationsamt, and we are painted the same color by the broad brush of the noisiest part of the Swiss political landscape. We — basically all the nurses, half the doctors, and a big chunk of the finance and tech sectors, as well as the occasional Balkan gangster or Nigerian dealer — are not welcome here.

The SVP would do well to consider the impact of the xenophobic noise they use to keep the hinterlands voting for them in fear. It brings the people to the urn, sure, but it tends to undermine the perception Switzerland’s own residents — Bürger and Ausländer — have of their home as a modern, inclusive, cosmopolitan country — a perception which underlies, in part, our continued mutual prosperity. And it brings us to common cause with Ivan, which we most certainly should not have.

Brian Trammell
Brian Trammell
Scientist, Synthesist, Cyclist, SRE