Chronicles of a writer abroad

Intro to Swiss Politics


I think that my mental representation of Switzerland is still somewhat stereotypical, similar to that of a person who has never visited: my first associations are of beautiful, towering snow-topped mountains, smaller (but delicious) mountains of cheese and chocolate, and a little red-haired girl called Heidi, who lives in the mountains and drinks the milk of the cows that pasture there.

I hate to break this to you, but there are also politics here, and they’re ugly like they are everywhere else. Perhaps even uglier, in some cases. Take a gander at this flyer, which landed in my mailbox today:

This flyer made my heart beat faster, and not in a good way. What we have here is a Caucasian person wearing a burka and giving a peace sign, while emblazoned across her chest are the words “so nicht!” (“not like that!”). I know that burkas are controversial — they make Westerners uncomfortable both because of religious and cultural mores that are associated with them, and because of the simple fact that we are accustomed to seeing all of a person’s face, not just the eyes. I know that countries like France, Italy, and Australia have taken a strong stance against them, without seriously adverse effects. But everything about this picture seemed wrong to me:  the fact that the person wearing the burka in this case has donned it as a costume in order to ridicule this particular group; the suggestion that a friendly gesture from such a person would be a ruse; and the flat-out admission that such a person would never be accepted in Swiss society. I imagined how a Muslim woman who wears a burka out of respect for her culture and religion would feel, seeing such a flyer. Vicariously, it made me feel sick.

I took the flyer inside and translated the reverse, which is full of inflammatory speech: according to this party, the “Islamization” of Switzerland must be stopped.  You’ll see if/when you visit, but let me describe for you the typical crowded tram/train/supermarket/street in Zürich or anywhere in Switzerland that I’ve been so far: it’s a sea of white faces, none of them covered by burkas. Sorry, Schweizer Demokraten, but it doesn’t feel like we’re living in the same country. Perhaps you are confusing your games with reality.

That’s right, I did get pretty worked up — especially when I looked at the bottom of the flyer’s back page, where prejudiced xenophobes are invited to play a fun game of fill-in-the-blanks, with sentences like “The European continent is home to the __________.” They’re also invited to check the boxes with plenty of righteous zeal if they agree with statements like “It is better for them if they stay on their own continent” and “we must protect ourselves if we are to survive!”

What eventually made me feel better was learning that this is a fairly extreme right-wing party whose rhetoric earned them only 1% of the vote (and 1 seat of 200 in parliament) in 2003, and 0.5% of the vote (no seats) in the last national election in 2007.

Okay then — I was getting fired up about people that are not worth getting fired up about. But then there is also the black sheep campaign to consider. This is one that was led by the SVP, or Swiss People’s Party, who does usually have the largest share of the vote (28.9% in the last election). Here is the campaign image from the 2007 election:

The translation of the text is “Creating Security.” The implicit message? “We don’t like or trust outsiders.” Of course, the party line is that it is only foreign criminals that are not wanted, but doesn’t the poster give a different image? As a New York Times article put it: “The party’s political campaign has a much broader agenda than simply fighting crime. Its subliminal message is that the influx of foreigners has somehow polluted Swiss society, straining the social welfare system and threatening the very identity of the country.”  I think many of us Auslanders could believe that we are the black sheep depicted here. If you’re not aware, 20% of Switzerland’s population is comprised of “foreign nationals,” and the SVP claims that those committing crimes are disproportionately members of this group.

The SVP’s current flyer, which also arrived in the mail today, is still full of assertions like the following: Switzerland doesn’t belong in the EU; immigration has to be controlled; foreign criminals must be deported; no more chaos and violence (again — are we living in the same country?).

With this material in hand, the land of chocolate and Heidi suddenly seems more xenophobic, and less welcoming. Instead of music, the hills are alive with the sound of politicians whispering We’re watching you, black sheep, and we’re ready to kick you across the border. How can they send these kinds of messages to a country which is made up of 20% foreigners? I wonder. And then I smack my forehead, because I’m forgetting: this is a silent 20%, and it doesn’t matter to politicians how they feel — they’re safely muzzled by the fact that they can’t vote.


2 thoughts on “Intro to Swiss Politics

  1. Powerful post Kristen. So well written … I think you should send a para or two to the Toronto Star and Globe & Mail, ask them if they’re interested in an occasional column from a Gen Y living in Switzerland. You oughta be read more widely than this blog. Seriously.

  2. Provocative!

    “Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace”

    Ah, but there are countries and borders, keeping things in — and out. History. And traditions. What shall we give? Acceptance? Awareness? Example?

    A brilliant post – thanks Kristen.

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