Monday, 22 October 2007

The white sheep win in Switzerland

Despite the "foreigner-friendly" win in Poland, the weekend saw a very different election result just a thousand kilometers away in Switzerland. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has gained infamy in the past few months for running what many see as a blatantly racist ad campaign, won 29% of the vote this weekend and gained seven seats on the National Council. That makes SVP Switzerland’s largest party by a long shot.

Meanwhile Switzerland’s second-largest party, the center-left Social Democrats, had a disastrous weekend. They lost nine seats and had a 4 percent drop on its showing in 2003 elections. The party now has 43 seats on the 200-person National Council compared to the SVP's 62. SVP is led by the populist Christoph Blocher, who is one interesting character, let me tell you.

The news is highly disturbing to many in Europe because the result means that the party’s overtly racist campaign advertising was a huge success. The party had run a series of ads depicting three white sheep grazing on a Swiss flag, kicking a black sheep off of it. The ads were accompanied by the slogan, "for more security.”

Twenty percent of Switzerland’s population is foreign-born, and the issue has been attracting an increasing amount of attention. Historically Switzerland has taken in many refugees, and one of the largest number was the influx of people from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s during the civil war. Many of those refugees haven’t left, and have had a hard time integrating into Swiss society. Many haven’t learned high German and only speak a little Swiss German, and they tend to congregate in specific, poorer areas (poor for Switzerland is a relative term!). I know from being in Zurich that many Swiss people there view them as dangerous thugs, or freeloaders taking advantage of the state.

Switzerland took many refugees from Eastern Europe during the communist era, and those refugees didn’t go back once the wall fell. In fact, Switzerland is now paying people from certain Eastern European countries to go back to their homeland.

This sort of situation isn’t unique to Switzerland of course. Europe as a whole is having a hard time adjusting to the new minority populations in their midst, and every country has their one group they seem to fear/demonize the most. In Germany it’s the Turkish, in France it’s the Algerians, in Eastern Europe it’s the gypsies, and in the UK it’s Pakistanis (although Poles are now emerging as a close runner-up for Middle England’s hatred).

What’s troubling is this is perhaps the first instance of a mainstream European political party to have a huge win as the result of a blatantly racist campaign. For instance when the far-right Le Pen somehow eeked into the second round of the presidential election in France back in 2002, the public rose up in an outcry to defeat him. Similarly, though Xenophobic nationalist parties in The Netherlands have been gaining popularity, none have broken through the barrier to become a mainstream party. This is also true of the British National Party in the UK.

But could conservative mainstream parties elsewhere in Europe take a cue from the SVP’s win and decide it is politically expedient to push hard to the right on immigration issues?

The SVP will surely see its electoral success yesterday as a mandate to push forward policies like the deportation of foreign criminals, and may look into other new laws about foreigners as well. The party also wants to keep Switzerland out of the European Union, and the government is likely to see the victory as an endorsement of that continued policy by the Swiss people.

But with foreigners amounting to 20 percent of the population, such policies and rhetoric may just serve to make the problem worse. Unless Switzerland plans to deport one-fifth of its population.

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