Hard right's hero shakes up Swiss politics
“It’s not like we’re England,” said the old woman sharing a flask of coffee with her middle-aged daughter on the train from Geneva to Zurich. “They had the colonies, and we didn’t,” she adds, to explain the nature of Britain’s racial mix and why Switzerland does not need one.
Her daughter considers this for a moment.
“I worry,” she says, “there will be a putsch against him.”
The him in question is Christoph Blocher, the populist and right-wing leader of the Swiss People’s party (UDC): lawyer, industrialist, admirer of Winston Churchill, collector of mawkish Swiss art and, if his opponents and critics are to be believed, a man with leanings towards the fascist fringe of the right.
And a week from today, if Swiss pollster GfS has done its work correctly, the Swiss electorate will return his party again as the largest, with 27% of the vote.
Blocher is the man that one newspaper columnist for 24 Heures—with some irony—dubbed last week the “Lider Maximo” after Fidel Castro, and whom a Cabinet colleague once labelled Il Duce.
Everywhere Blocher goes, he polarises Swiss society. His posters appear to have been the only ones vandalised during the campaign. In Bern, where anti-Blocher marchers caused a riot last weekend by stopping the UDC marching through the city, his face has been scrawled out or covered with a drawing showing a black sheep urinating into his grinning mouth.
The latter is a reference to a crude campaign poster backing the UDC’s campaign to expel migrants who commit crimes—three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag—that has galvanised Blocher’s opponents, who say it is racist. In Nyon, he has had a swastika scrawled across his face. Elsewhere one can read the words: “Fuck Blocher.”
It is not simply the policies that a UDC dominated by Blocher has associated itself with, such as the campaign by MP Ulrich Schluer to ban the building of new minarets or the petition to allow the “black sheep” to be expelled. There is also something in Blocher’s style that has shaken the cliqueish world of Swiss politics and its defining values of grand coalitions and the search for general consensus.
Blocher has brought an abrasive and finger-jabbing style—denouncing his foes, including a senior female official investigating the functioning of his Ministry of Police and Justice, as “enemy number one”.
It is not only on immigration that he fulminates. Blocher is fiercely anti-Europe in his convictions and has vigorously attacked suggestions that Swiss troops might ever serve overseas. He is anti-welfare, and his critics charge that he is undermining the institutions that hold together Switzerland’s complex and decentralised political settlement.
None of this, however, would be recognised by Blocher’s followers, who see him as the redeemer of a country going to the dogs, confronted by challenges to its identity and by the alleged scourge of immigrant crime.
In his party’s headquarters in a pretty residential suburb of Bern, journalists are now greeted with a mixture of suspicion and a gauche unawareness that what is pinned up on the walls may not best help it dissociate itself from accusations of xenophobia. One party worker smilingly comments on flyers showing a minaret and an old Islamic woman in a burqa with the caption: “Baaden oder Baghdad?”
“One of our party members came up with that,” says the young man enthusiastically. There is a photocopied sheet pinned next to it that he does not comment on, depicting cartoons of a dozen or so racial stereotypes, including the “Juden”, depicted by a big-nosed Jew.
Mathias Muller, a party official, says with a pained look that the UDC is unhappy with suggestions in the international media that under Blocher it is “neo-Nazi”. “It is absurd. We are a democratic party. We are the biggest party in Switzerland. We stay within our Swiss tradition. That means democracy and freedom and the correct application of the law.”
He denies that the now infamous “black sheep” poster has racist overtones. “The poster shows the saying about the black sheep ... It is a popular saying here. Everyone knows it. It makes clear that anyone who breaks the law has no place in our peaceful society. After the sentence and after the stint in prison, we would expel the criminals from our country.”
Not Swiss passport holders. That would be illegal. He means migrants. And for all the UDC’s complaints of being misrepresented, it is the party’s own campaign material that has invited opprobrium, not least a three-part film called Heaven or Hell produced by the party for the current campaign.
In the first segment, young men shoot heroin, steal handbags from old ladies and abduct a young woman. The second segment shows Muslims in Switzerland, women in headscarves and men sitting idly around. The third part shows the idealised Switzerland: a busy place of banks and farms and corporations set among chocolate-box scenery.
But crime is the crucial issue. In charge of justice and the police, Blocher, his critics say, has played on the fear of crime unscrupulously. In 2006, when it was revealed that two Kosovo Albanian boys had raped a five-year-old Swiss girl in the Grisons commune of Rhazuns, it was Blocher to the fore. That case, a cause celebre in the Swiss media, was one of the main motors of the UDC’s campaign for the expulsion of foreign migrants convicted of crime.
This spring the party launched a petition to gather the 100 000 signatures needed to call a referendum to change the Constitution. “This crime [the Albanian rape case] reflects what is going on in our country. We have increasing crime. Much more violence than we had before. We have people in the urban areas who don’t feel safe any more,” says Muller.
And while he insists that the campaign to ban the building of minarets is a separate issue from that of the “black sheep”, it is clear that for the UDC there is a strong correlation. “We have a strong foreign infiltration,” he insists. “We have a lot of immigrants with an Islamic background and we feel that is going to change our society dramatically. And yes ... we have problems with immigrants with an Islamic background. We have them at school. We have them in the streets. We have them also, unfortunately, when it comes to crime.”
Suspicion of Blocher has been heightened by his way of doing politics—even within the UDC. His opponents, including some within the party, say that the former head of the EMS-Chemie chemicals plant has used his Zurich-based faction to take over an organisation that was once the dull party of small business and farmers and transform it into the brash, populist thing that it is now.
Daniele Jeni, one of the founders of the Black Sheep Committee, which tried to halt the march of the UDC through Bern last weekend, is not convinced by claims that the UDC is fascist. A Green candidate in the elections, he believes instead that there is simply an uncomfortable crossover in the language of the UDC with some far-right parties, which he suspects is probably more to do with political opportunism.
“It is not a fascist party in that sense ... but parts of its thinking are related to it. The demonstration against the UDC last weekend was to stop it marching and against its policies which are arrogant and racist. As in other countries, there are justified fears here. The economic times have become more difficult. [People] fear for the standard of living. That party plays on it. And it scapegoats minorities. It is very dangerous.
“People believe that the UDC can re-establish Switzerland as it once was before. It is nostalgia. They say in the 1950s people were kinder, more respectful of authority, there was not so much criminality. Not so many foreigners.”
He believes too that Blocher’s charisma has worked not only on those who support him but on his enemies as well. “The problem with the traditional left here is that is has become like a rabbit before a snake with Blocher. It sits there fascinated. Now after the demonstration in Bern we have shown you need to oppose him.”
And while Blocher has galvanised the Swiss for or against him, the one group largely keeping its counsel is the immigrant community, many of its members nervous about being seen to be speaking out. In African shops and Arab businesses in Geneva last week, most did not want to comment on the election; one African mother in a pharmacy told her teenage daughter to shut up when she ventured an opinion on Blocher’s racism.
“This place is still safer for me than southern Lebanon, my home,” said a restaurateur who asked to be identified only as Kamal. “I’m happy here. I don’t have any problems. But the people from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast ... I think that people here do not like blacks.”
He pauses sadly for a moment or two. “And people say that Muslims too make problems ...”—Guardian Unlimited Â