The Swiss People’s party used referendums to deploy its anti-migrant, anti-EU rhetoric. That’s where our movement started.
Four years ago, along with some friends, I started a grassroots liberal democratic movement in Switzerland called Operation Libero. Since then, we’ve won four referendums (which under Swiss electoral law are frequent) against the rightwing populists. How did we do that? We fought tooth and nail to defend the institutions that protect our freedom and the rule of law. We believed in our goals. And we decided to never sing the populist’s song – only our own song.
For more than two decades Switzerland has been something of a laboratory for rightwing populism. Ahead of others in Europe, the rightwing Swiss People’s party deployed a relentless anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric. It has successfully used referendums as a marketing tool for its political agenda and has become the largest political force in Switzerland.
I am 27, and a history student. This was the political environment I grew up in. But in February 2014, my friends and I experienced a kind of Brexit shock before Brexit happened: a “mass immigration initiative” – a referendum – spearheaded by the populists put our country’s relations with the EU at risk. It was a wake-up call. A small group of us in our 20s decided we’d had enough, and it was time to do something.
We were fed up with the passivity of Switzerland’s established parties. We were angry that traditional political forces were on the defensive in front of the populists, and that no one was speaking up for the very institutions that have made our country so successful in the last two centuries. We felt the need to get involved, to stand up proudly for Switzerland as a land of opportunity, not as an open-air museum – a country of diversity, with a positive narrative for liberal ideas.
Our crowdfunded, volunteer-based campaigning has achieved a lot in the last four years. We defeated the Swiss People’s party in four major referendum battles: on the question of expelling foreigners who have broken the law (February 2016), on providing legal support for asylum seekers (June 2016), on naturalisation (February 2017) and on the abolition of the country’s public broadcasting (March 2018).
Right now we’re busy campaigning in the run-up to another referendum, on 25 November, in which the populists aim to place Swiss legislation above international law – in essence a “Switzerland first” agenda. The vote could result in Switzerland’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. I’d like to share what we’ve learned along the way.
To tackle rightwing populism, you have to dispense with peevishness and be very much on the offensive – you must lead the narrative. Take, for example, the 2016 referendum asking Swiss citizens whether they’d agree to have foreigners expelled on the grounds of even minor offenses, such as driving too fast twice in a 10-year period. The vote aimed at modifying the constitution to allow a system of automatic expulsions from the country, with judges given no room to consider personal hardship – an essential element of the law. These changes could have potentially targeted people born in Switzerland who had never lived in the country their parents came from.
At the time, mainstream parties seemed exhausted, having just come out of a general election in which the Swiss People’s party had dominated the campaign. They seemed to wallow in defeatism. Survey showed the populist referendum plan might garner up to 66% of voters’ support. To be sure, this was a low start for us. But we also knew that we didn’t want to live in a country with a two-tier legal system and a judiciary hindered in its work.
So what we did is this: we entirely avoided speaking about foreigners and criminality. Instead, we set the tone of the debate by speaking out about the rule of law and how important it is that everyone be equal before it. We moved the political battlefield and forced our adversaries to meet us there. We deliberately argued in a patriotic way, repeatedly referring to the constitution as a pillar of our liberal democracy. In this way, we removed the rightwing populist’s ability to dictate what “their” referendum was about and demonstrated that the changes being considered would affect everyone, not just “criminal foreigners” – as the populists put it.
And it worked. As the vote drew close, the Swiss People’s party shifted away from the topic of “criminal foreigners”. They found themselves having to explain why they wanted Swiss values to be upended. This was a reversal. People took notice. After the results came out, the leader of the populist’s party conceded: “I don’t know what happened but at some point, everyone was just talking about the rule of law.”
As the 2019 European parliamentary elections approach, the task for liberal-minded pro-Europeans is to capture the initiative and be the first to define what that election is really about. As a Swiss citizen and a stout liberal democrat, I care immensely about the EU’s fate. Next year’s vote will be about the shape and values of the continent we want to live in. It is very much about freedom and opportunities – not about migration or identity.
Let’s not be intimidated by rightwing populists. Let them explain why they want to attack institutions and values that brought decades of peace, freedom and prosperity to Europe. Let them explain why we should dismantle that model.
Europeans need to show pride in institutions that exist because of what we’ve learned from the past. It’s true that many citizens don’t relate to these institutions and often don’t understand what they stand for – which brings me to another crucial point: politics needs to speak directly to people’s hearts and minds. Populists don’t have a monopoly on emotions. Liberalism is based on emotions too. It is based on the profound belief that freedom and equal rights are necessary for any society to prosper as a whole.
That’s where the battle lies. Serious democrats across Europe have a responsibility to ensure that a vast majority of citizens understand and connect emotionally to what truly protects them – liberal institutions. Now is the time to sing that song – and proudly so.