At a time when Western anti-immigrant sentiment is increasingly endemic, good news comes from an unlikely source. On February 28, 2016, the Swiss people took to the polls, turning down an expansion to the country’s already strict immigration policies. The Swiss People’s Party, Switzerland’s largest party, proposed a piece of legislation last December that would authorize the deportation of any immigrant with a past criminal record convicted of a new crime within 10 months of committing the first. This legislation covers just about any conviction; from speeding to insulting an officer, an immigrant could be deported for any minor crime. The SVP, which is known to have an anti-immigration bent, labeled this law as the enforcement arm of an already existing immigration law that allows for deportation of any immigrant convicted of a violent offense.
The addition of this new legislation seems to have been brought on by an influx of North African and other Middle Eastern immigrants, whose presence has created widespread unease throughout Switzerland. The party’s stance against significant immigration, coupled with the fear brought on by the assaults of German women in Cologne in December of 2015, led to the SVP’s attempt to enact, in its eyes, greater precautions for the protection of the Swiss people.
Opposition was intense from the December announcement. Comprised of smaller parties and non-profits, the opposition pushed back against the SVP, calling for the Swiss people to reject the referendum. The people did. The referendum provoked the highest voter turnout rate since the 1990s at 62 percent, and analysts say only 45 percent of voters actually voted in favor of the legislation. How did the opposition become so effective in the face of SVP’s high approval and its past initiatives?
Some theorize that potential complications with the EU were major turn-offs for Swiss citizens. The opposition made it clear that this policy would directly violate treaties that Switzerland has with the EU, which only allow Switzerland to deport immigrants who pose “a real threat” to the safety of the Swiss people. Thus, the new law would put Switzerland’s shaky relationship with the EU to the test.
However, the referendum was defined by more than international threats; the bill arguably put the legitimacy of the Swiss direct-democracy at risk. In an interview with the HPR, Professor Georg Lutz of the University of Lausanne said, “Everybody believes in direct democracy in Switzerland … there’s still a lot of trust and acceptance of the system and of the outcomes.” This trust was tested in this referendum, Dr. Lutz said, as the opposition painted it as a way to violate “the division of power between the executive, legislative, and legal system” that is essential to Swiss democracy. After the opposition began this campaign, such concern was echoed throughout much of the population. With its pride as a nation very much tied to the practice of its political system, this legislation put too much at risk for voters to ignore.
Social Media in Direct Democracy
Still, issues alone are not enough to get voters to the polls. According to Dr. Lutz, turnout figures for national elections have hovered around 50 percent, but referendums have garnered even lower voting rates. “Participation in referenda is way more elective,” he told the HPR. Even this emotionally charged topic has rarely been enough motivation to bring voters to the polls. The key to this referendum then, Dr. Manatschal of the University of California Berkeley told the HPR, was the social movement that sprouted up around the opposition groups and their social media accounts.
Voter mobilization was a massive part of the opposition’s campaign, with propaganda playing a big role in getting information to voters. For example, the official SVP propaganda slogan, “Enlich Sicherheit schaffen!” which roughly translates to “Finally Create Security,” was put next to an image of a white sheep kicking a black sheep off of the Swiss flag. Described as racist, as the majority of immigrants coming into Switzerland are of African or Arabian decent, the image was used by the opposition to highlight the racially charged nature of the SVP’s campaign.
The opposition’s propaganda featured images of swastikas accompanied by text declaring “Non á justice á duex vitesses!” or “Not a two speed justice!” with a list of racial catastrophes in the last century, including those of the Nazi regime. Comparisons in ads between the SVP and the racial and ethnic disasters of the previous century are powerful and dangerous imagery. The opposition wanted to prove that this referendum was not protection of the Swiss people; it was the beginning of a dangerous political era for the country.
But the most powerful mechanism for mobilizing voters came from outside formal institutions, Dr. Manatschal said. Throughout the analysis of this referendum, “it seems that it was indeed something else. It was not the opposition parties or the labor unions” that mobilized the voters. The mystery ingredient was an increasingly popular phenomenon: social media.
A campaign called “Urgent Call,” or “dringender Aufruf,” in German, began after the legislation got the required number of signatures. The referendum was, as Dr. Manatschal told the HPR, “this evolution of a new protest movement which managed to mobilize voters and to collect money to campaign against the initiative of the People’s Party.” This social campaign was created by 200 prominent figures in Swiss media and academia. Such individuals are highly visible, with many keeping an active social media presence. Using Twitter, Facebook, and a well designed website, the campaign attacked the SVP’s initiative and appealed to voters to try to increase support of the opposition. This tactic of mobilization was effective, as “the initiators could get people to vote who wouldn’t otherwise have voted, such as very young voters or people who are not very interested in politics,” Dr. Manatschal said. This is the reason behind the high voter turnout, as people flocked to polls after being politicized through their social media contact. “It was a very, very democratic thing,” Dr. Manatschal said. “It’s how democracy is supposed to work”.
Indeed, social media is the new way to increase the effectiveness of a democratic system. Professor Hilde Coffe has found that social media plays a great role in the formation of voter preferences, especially in young people. In an interview with HPR, Dr. Coffee pointed out that expressions of political opinions on platforms like Twitter and Facebook make exposure to important issues in succinct and tangible ways. This is transition is making the political process more accessible to otherwise excluded voters. This newest referendum is another example in a growing discussion on how to best harness the immense power of the modern Tweeter.
A Change of Heart?
Does this vote mean that the Swiss are starting to become more open to immigrants and their integration? Not necessarily. According to Dr. Manatschal, this referendum, in fact, represents a return to prior Swiss voting patterns: “Anti-immigrant initiatives or immigrant-skeptic initiatives have a long history in Switzerland.” The difference, Dr. Manatschal says, is that none of them passed. The SVP sponsored three referendums prior to February’s that all passed; these referendums, in comparison to February’s, are in fact the unusual ones. Over the past decade, there has been a relative increase of support for the SVP-backed policies. There has always been a fairly high level of anti-immigrant sentiment in Switzerland, but compared to past political arrangements, the current one leans fairly far right.
However, the rejection of this latest SVP referendum does not represent a radical shift in the attitudes of the Swiss people. It still has one of the most notable histories of anti-immigrant referendums, beginning in the 1960’s. Dr. Lutz said that “Switzerland is a conservative country and a lot of anti-immigrant attitudes,” but “that’s not different from most other countries. The difference is in Switzerland we regularly vote on those things.”
The difference for a place like Switzerland, then, is the worldwide visibility of its anti-immigrant opinions. There are few places that are free from the appeal of nationalism and far-right politics. The American 2016 presidential election is enough proof that even an entire country made up of immigrant peoples can fall into the nationalistic trap. The recent referendum, then, is not a glimpse of changing attitudes. The belief that immigrants are a threat to the Swiss identity is deep-seated throughout the country. And the Swiss people are willing to risk their relationship with the EU in order to protect themselves from the perceived threat of immigration, as shown by the referendums in 2009 and 2010. This country continues to stay on the right of line when it comes to accepting and integrating new cultures and new identities into their own.
However, there is some hope. This referendum shows that there is an inherent trust in the people’s decision. The results of the referendum have not been challenged, and indeed, if the patterns Dr. Lutz has seen in past referendums, there will never be a challenge. Looking into the future, integration and immigration progress will not be made through tradition channels. Instead, it will be up to those on social media to show the world that people who come from other places play an important role in our society.
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