Fri, Apr 12, 2019 - Page 9 News List

How a Swiss group is beating right-wing populists

Operation Libero is winning key victories by using fun, but hard-hitting messages to tackle fear and pessimism

By Jon Henleyin  /  The Observer, ZURICH, Switzerland

Illustration: Mountain People

How do you beat right-wing populists? With pink socks, viral videos, condoms — and an iron determination not to let them decide what matters.

That is how Operation Libero is doing it anyway.

As advancing nationalist parties met in Milan on Monday to forge an alliance in the run-up to next month’s European elections, anti-populist activists in Switzerland might have some lessons on halting — even reversing — the seemingly unstoppable rise of right-wing populists.

“It’s about the political space, who’s defining and shaping it, who’s communicating strategically within it, who, basically, is holding it,” Flavia Kleiner, 28, the group’s self-assured copresident, said over tea in a Zurich bookshop and coffee house.

“At the moment, in lots of places, it’s populists. Everywhere, the conversation’s about identity: who we are, where we’re from, the past. But that’s their turf. We have to go on the offensive — clear the fog, refocus attention, reframe the debate,” she said.

As the ground zero of post-war European populism, Switzerland is home to arguably Europe’s most consistently successful right-wing populist party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). For 25 years, the SVP had been steadily building its electoral success through a series of increasingly nation-first, anti-immigration popular referendums.

In February 2016, months after the SVP had scored its highest ever share of the vote, 29.4 percent, in national elections, with the political mainstream seemingly helpless to halt its advance, Switzerland went to the polls again, this time for an SVP-sponsored referendum demanding the automatic deportation of immigrants found guilty of even minor offenses.

Had the proposal passed, any of the nation’s 2 million non-Swiss residents — a quarter of the population — caught, for example, speeding twice in any 10-year period, could have been automatically returned to their homeland, with judges barred from considering personal circumstances.

It did not pass.

Voters rejected it overwhelmingly by 59 percent to 41 percent, on a higher turnout — at nearly 64 percent — than for any popular referendum in years.

“One moment we were talking about immigration and doing just fine,” the SVP’s leader said at the time. “The next, everyone was talking about rule of law. I don’t know what happened.”

What happened was Operation Libero.

The movement had just chalked up the first in an unbroken series of victories over popular referendums pushed by the SVP. The latest, on giving Swiss law precedence over international law, was defeated in November last year by 66 percent to 34 percent.

In cantonal elections in Zurich last month, which are seen as a reliable indicator for October’s national elections, the biggest losers, by far, were the SVP, whose share of the vote plunged lower than at any time since 1995.

“The populists don’t know what’s hit them, and they really don’t know how to deal with it,” said Constantin Seibt, one of the nation’s most respected journalists and editor-in-chief of Republik, a record-breaking, crowdfunded news start-up.

“All they can manage is to bleat: ‘It’s not fair. They’ve got all these young people, and somehow they keep turning everything we say against us.’ Well, those young people have changed the dynamics of the country. The populists seem to be running out of steam. It’s pretty cool,” Seibt said.

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