The Not-So-Subtle Racism of the Swiss Far-Right
Political campaigning by the Swiss far-right party UDC tells a story of emboldening racism over the past decades.
A unique voting tradition
Nested in the heart of Europe, tiny, neutral Switzerland takes pride in its unique political system. A consequence of being the only country to run a direct democracy, the alpine nation has a dynamic public life and is home to fierce political campaigning.
Up to four times a year, Swiss people are called to vote on federal, cantonal, and local matters in what is known here as votations populaires.
After more than a century of operation, the system is properly oiled and most of the voting is easily done by mail. A few weeks before the day of the votation, every eligible citizen gets a voting pack that includes information memos, the position of Congress and the Executive branch, the positions of the parties,… Here is a Wikipedia picture of the pack, to give you an idea:
Parties on the fringes of the political spectrum took heed of the power of popular initiatives in the 1970s and since then, their popularity has steadily risen.
These votations allow Swiss citizens to give their opinions on constitutional and legal matters using one of two democratic mechanisms:
The first is the referendum — it gives people an oversight over congressional lawmaking. Any law voted by parliament can be subjected to popular approval through a referendum.
The second is the initiative populaire (popular initiative) — it allows any group of citizens to bring to a vote constitutional amendments if enough people support the initiative (one needs to collect 100,000 signatures).
These mechanisms are the foundations of Swiss direct democracy.
The rise of popular initiatives and populism
In use since 1893, the initiatives populaires were at first less popular than referendums, who were seen as the better tool of citizen oversight. That is until parties on the fringe of the political spectrum took heed of their power in the 1970s. Since then, their popularity has steadily risen:
Popular votations are always preceded by months of fierce political campaigning. Over the years, and with the rise in power of the Swiss far-right, populist party UDC (SVP in German), the issues brought forward through popular initiatives have moved towards immigration, European affairs, and what is always presented as “national security concerns.” The tone of the campaigning has also shifted, moving from an informative and rather bland communication, to openly racist and vile speech.
Switzerland is a unique case study for political campaigning, with a vast amount of data available and a long history to draw insights from. When citizens get to vote on issues, and not only elect people, we get to see how these issues can be framed to influence the masses.
While the themes and idiosyncrasies of political speech will, of course, be peculiar to the country and therefore sometimes obscure to foreigners, the racism of our far-right party must be known abroad and criticised for its vileness and its impetuosity.
Switzerland as an endangered Eden
It is ingrained in the Swiss psyche that we live in an Eden Garden, far from the problems of our European neighbours. We may rile the US and their exceptionalism, but truth is, we do the same all the time.
Each of our major linguistic regions (German-speaking in the North-East, Italian in the South-East, and French in the West) has a complex love-hate relationship with its neighbours (Germany, Austria, Italy, France, respectively), and issues are often framed as “they come in Switzerland for the good pay and then spend their money in their countries, they abuse the system,….” (ignoring the massive important of trans-border, representing up to 20% of the GDP of border cantons like Geneva — Source in French).
Starting in 1970, the themes of Überfremdung, Übervölkerung, and Umweltschutz started being used together and interchangeably by the far-right. This choice proved unfortunately savvy and well-advised.
Überfremdung literally translates to “over foreignisation,” implying an issue with the growing foreign-born population of the country. Übervölkerung translates to overpopulation. Umweltschutz means environmental protection. By tying together the issue of overpopulation, over-foreignisation, and environmental protection, the far-right positioned itself as the party that would protect our beloved Garden (literally and figuratively) from the dangers of a globalised world.
The poster above, for a 1970 popular initiative to restrict via quotas the population of foreigners in the country, demonstrates this logic in a blunt, mathematical way: “Every second, Switzerland loses 1sqm of nature, this is the price of overpopulation, always more concrete buildings…” There is no possible confusion as to which “overpopulation” we’re talking about here since Überfremdung is used throughout the poster.
This theme of foreigners coming to steal our wealth and destroy our nature abounds in their communication, as is demonstrated by the examples below:
More recently, the great other has also started to include the European Union as a whole, as is shown above and in the poster below:
Reminders of darker times
For people unfamiliar with Swiss history, particularly the shameful attitude of the Swiss government during WWII, Überfremdung is a terrifying reminder of a concept popular in the 40s called Verjudung, or Jewisation. Both play on the same fear of the Great Other that threatens to upend the stability of the country and plunge it into chaos. Another popular saying during WWII was “la barque est pleine” — the boat is full — implying that:
First, Switzerland was a boat, a haven, floating on the rough seas of a broken Europe; and
Second, that the boat had a limited capacity to welcome immigrants. Should this capacity be exceeded, the boat would tip and all would drown.
When one of the local sections of the party UDC used the infamous saying in a 2016 political poster (shown below), a scandal erupted. The section said it did not endorse the message, that it was a personal initiative from a designer they disowned,… but the poster had been printed and distributed, and its message unmistakeable.
The boldness of local party sections far exceeds that of the federal party, but even they do not refrain from shock imagery.
Over the decades, a very specific visual language has evolved. It centres around the idea of Switzerland as an endangered Eden, but the mathematical approach to the first campaigns has given way to more minimalistic concepts.
White, red, and black
White and red are the colours of the Swiss national flag and they are ubiquitous in everyday-life Switzerland. UDC has chosen to design their posters around these two colours, appropriating to themselves a national symbol. They also added a third hue: black, which always represents the threat (and, by extension, the Great Other).
The poster hereunder was one of the first ones to make use of this colour triad prominently. It reads: “Ivan S., rapist, soon a Swiss citizen?” and invites people to vote yes for a popular initiative to deport criminals.
The name Ivan S. is a callout to former-Yugoslavian immigrants in the country (following the war in the 90s, half a million people from the Balkans sought asylum in Switzerland — approximately 6.5% of the country’s population). This poster was highly criticised at the time, but it marked the beginning of a new era of directed racism in the party’s communication.
During the campaign, another poster showed up. It is one of the most infamous the UDC has produced, and one you might have already seen, wherever you happen to live.
This obvious association of the colour black with foreign criminals (and by extension foreigners at large) led to a major scandal in the country, yet the initiative was accepted.
The map of the national vote shows a clear East-West, Rural-Urban divide (all the red dots are cities who voted No in cantons who voted Yes), but the explanation behind this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this article.
Having won in part due to their despicable communication tactics, the UDC capitalised on their imagery and a slew of other posters went up in the years since:
Translations are not needed, the imagery is clear enough, isn’t it?
These posters play on these three colours that evoke strong emotional responses and are fundamental to cultures the world over. They re-emphasise, unconsciously, how the far-right is the guardian of long-lost traditions and the preserver of a “golden state of things” that is always under attack by progress and the globalisation of our world.
The Apple and Apple Tree
On top of the colours, another common theme in their campaigning is that of the apple tree and the apple.
The apple is part of the most famous Swiss legend, that of William Tell. Having defied the local Austrian lord, Tell was sentenced to prove his famous marksmanship by having to shoot an apple placed on top of his son’s head (which, being the hero he was, he obviously achieved).
The apple is a symbol rooted deep in the Swiss national myth, and its association with the country itself came naturally. Once again, the UDC appropriated it for their own purposes.
This poster, for yet another initiative to limit immigration, goes all-in on this theme. The European tree is dead, killed by crises, unemployment, debts, taxes, and, of course, mass immigration. The Swiss apple tree blossoms, thanks to growth, direct democracy, sovereignty, and prosperity.
More recently, a variation on the same theme drew once again strong criticism from the entire political world and the Swiss population:
The worms are labelled, one with a European flag, the others with colours reminiscent of Switzerland other political parties. One cannot ignore the repugnant similitude this poster bears with a drawing in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer:
The paradox of tolerance
Switzerland is a country that, thanks to its political system and traditions, has always strongly protected freedom of speech. However, with the UDC, the debate around proper political communication has been brought to its limits. The country finds itself, like many around the world, at odds with strong support for extremist ideas (UDC is the first party nationwide, but thankfully started losing steam in the last federal elections).
We are confronted with what Karl Popper called the paradox of tolerance, namely:
The paradox of tolerance states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant.
Whether we are able, as a nation, to move forward and throw this party and its horrendous racism away is yet to be seen, but recent electoral victories against their initiatives, their slight decline in the 2019 federal elections, and the general public being slowly fed up with their antics are encouraging signs that point in the right direction.