A little optimism about Swiss politics

I don’t think I’ve ever written a completely optimisic post about politics, but today seems as good a day as any to try. Today was an Abstimmungssonntag (“referendum Sunday”) here, and the most important question before Switzerland at the national level was a revocation of the federal government’s authority to levy a compulsory television and radio fee: NoBillag. I’ve already written about this referendum, and how it represented not a mere return of four hundred francs per year to every household, not a mere privatization of a few television and radio stations (one of which I’m listening to right now), but a frontal assault on public media and an attempt to drive the country’s media landscape into low-information territory; in other words noch ein Schritt zum kriechenden Beitritt der Schweiz in die vereinigten Staaten(1).

That’s not going to happen, at least not today. 71% of Swiss voters, myself included, said no to this one. While the polling had tended in this direction for a while, this was a far more decisive result than anyone was expecting, and – here’s where I get optimistic – I think this might mean something about Switzerland’s struggle with its inner fascism.

The Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerischer Volkspartei, SVP) is usually described in the English-language media as “far-right”, back before “far-right” was the scary new thing in Europe. I’ve described them in the past as vandalist; now “Swiss Trumpist” is a useful if not entirely accurate abbreviation for an American audience(2). The primary unifying theme of SVP politics as long as I’ve been here has been unrelenting hostility to people who are not Swiss, with a relatively restrictive understanding of the term “Swiss”.

One particular piece of this hostility was the Ausschaffungsinitiative (“Deportation Initiative”), which foresaw automatic loss of right to remain and subsequent deportation in case a noncitizen was convicted in Switzerland of murder, rape or other sexual assault, robbery, human trafficking, drug dealing, breaking and entering; or when said noncitizen abused social insurance (AHV/IV, “Social Security” in American English) or social assistance (the part of the social safety net that comes under “Welfare”), curiously, whether convicted thereof or not. The theory here was that since foreigners commit all the crime and steal all the welfare (which, actually, they don’t), if we just kick them out then there won’t be any more crime or welfare fraud.

The initiative passed in November 2010, 53-47. There were of course the usual problems with law by vandalism, such that nobody can be convicted of breaking and entering because no such particular offense exists in Swiss criminal law. There was also the matter that the complex set of treaties governing Switzerland’s relationship with the EU already regulated when EU citizens could be deported from Switzerland. There was the further matter that the automatic deportation foreseen by the initiative was fundamentally incompatible with the role of the judiciary in a state subscribing to the rule of law. Parilament duly implemented the initiative without all these unimplementable bits, which the SVP saw as a violation of the rights of the people (in this case, their base, plus the fifteen additional percent of the population they’d scared into voting for the Ausschaffungsinitiative by waving posters of Ivan S. at them) to self-determination through the initiative process(3).

The SVP’s response to this was the Durchsetzungsinitiative “Implementation Initiative”, which would have directly added text to Article 197(4) of the Constitution stating exactly which sections of the criminal code counted toward deportation, further stating that the power of deportation was retroactive for ten years, further explicitly ignoring the bilateral agreements on the status of EU citizens, and further allowing exceptions only in cases of self defense. tl;dr: “we fucking mean it, throw out the fucking foreign criminals, right fucking now.”

All right, here comes the optimism:

In contrast to the 52% Yes from the former intitiative, this one failed, a little over two years ago, with 60% No. This is somewhat unprecedented: Switzerland is famously conservative. Eight percent of the population doesn’t usually change its mind in the space of five years. It failed because it – finally – went too far. It was arbitrary, as the set of deportable laws and retroactivity clause meant that someone who had a single relatively minor crime in their youth could be deported a decade later, this itself being again a product of the medocrity of law by vandalism. It was incompatible with the rule of law, first by replacing the Parliament’s function in implementing provisions of the Constution by (poorly) writing exactly the law they wanted right in Article 197, second in removing the ability of the judiciary to do any actual judging, third by ignoring and thereby endangering the Bilateral treaties(5) with the EU, which a majority of Swiss people still think are a pretty good deal, on balance. It was protofascist, a point memorably made by an anti-initiative ad turning the Swiss cross into a swastika, to hit people over the head with the parallel to “two-class justice” as practiced in Nazi Germany.

Swiss politics from the center-right to the hard left breathed a sigh of relief when the Durchsetzungsinitiative failed. We’re still hearing the echo of that relief with the decisive No on NoBillag. Though the initiative’s proponents come from the youth wing of the Free Democratic Party, the politics are out of the SVP playbook: a frontal assault on the intitutions of the state and the political center, hastily written and ultimately mediocre text that has no place in the Constitution. I believe that we, the people of Switzerland, or at least the majority who dwell closer to the center of the political landscape, are learning to recognize these plays for what they are, and to reject them for the danger1 they represent.


(1)“The creeping admittance of Switzerland to the United States.” The SVP, in particular, hates the EU, and the idea that Switzerland might have one day joined it, and fights against anything that smells like getting closer to it (“…creeping accession…”). I could be generous here and say that this has something to do with a deep and abiding commitment to the idea of national sovereignty – whatever that really means for a state without economic or cultural dominance of its environs and/or a blue-water navy in the 21st century – but I think it has more to do with a (correct) fear that, subjugated to a larger political order, the SVP would disappear as a very mediocre fish in a very large pond. I digress.

(2)Indeed, “vandalist” is a pretty good description of Trumpism for someone who’s never seen The Apprentice, has no Twitter account, and has pointedly ignored English-language news for the past two years.

(3)This is the same pattern followed with the equally unimplementable Masseneinwanderungsinitiative, the blowback from which will arrive in 2018, but this is the optimistic post, remember?

(4)Everything temporary in the Swiss constitution happens in Article 197. This generally involves things like delays in the effect of other articles added or changed, and how to handle certain details during the implementation of an initiative.

(5)Ignoring and thereby endangering the Bilateral can either be seen as an avocation of the SVP, or as the entire strategy thereof; see (1).