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Switzerland’s populists promise ‘less political correctness’ after election win

The leader of the populist, rightwing Swiss People’s party (SVP) has promised more pragmatism and “less political correctness” after it won Sunday’s election with an improved vote share of 28%.

Final results on Monday showed the SVP – whose anti-immigration campaign platform included a pledge to keep the country’s 8.7 million-strong population below 10 million – won 62 seats in the 200-seat parliament, nine more than it had before.

Analysts said the vote was unlikely to change the formal makeup of the Swiss government, the federal council, whose seven cabinet posts are divided among the top four parties according to vote share, but marked a clear setback for liberals.

“I believe the people have given the politicians a clear mandate,” Marco Chiesa, the SVP president, told 24 Heures newspaper. “Acknowledge reality, and come up with solutions … these elections were about what’s happening in people’s daily lives.”

Chiesa said he aimed to pass “significant reforms” with the help of the third-placed centre-right Centre party.

“I want to pursue a more pragmatic politics,” he said. “Less political correctness, more of what really bothers people: 10 million inhabitants, a reliable energy supply, independence,” he said.

The centre-left Social Democrats gained two seats to finish with 41, with the Centre party adding one to take its representation to 29. The Radical-Liberals lost one seat, leaving them with 28, the Greens lost five (23), and the Liberal Greens lost six (10).

“The result means it will be more difficult for progressive issues, or issues like the environment and sustainability,” said Cloé Jans from pollsters GFS Bern. “After this result politicians will feel less pressure to push this agenda in the next four years.”

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While green themes dominated the 2019 election campaign, the return of immigration to the top of Europe’s political agenda allowed the SVP to focus on the theme that has helped it finish first in every national election since 1999.

A 43% increase in asylum applications in the first half of 2023 and more than 65,000 refugees from Ukraine gave the nationalist party more ammunition, analysts said, which it deployed in a campaign that was widely criticised as xenophobic.

Social media posts highlighted crimes committed by foreigners, portraying bloodied knives, hooded criminals, fists, bruised faces and frightened women. The SVP also declared war on “cancel culture”, “gender terror” and “woke madness”.

Pascal Sciarini, a political scientist at the University of Geneva, said the current international context also boosted the populist party.

“The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, recent attacks in Paris and Brussels – it all creates a climate of insecurity that favours the SVP,” he told RTS public radio.

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The climate crisis remained an important concern for voters, Sciarini said, but “it has been supplanted by immediate worries over purchasing power, inflation and of course mass immigration, all of which were highlighted in the SVP’s campaign”.

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Operation Libero, a grassroots youth movement that has successfully fought a series of national referendums pushed by the SVP, said the party’s victory must not be allowed to “normalise racism, incitement to hatred and inflammatory campaigning”.

Amid a recent succession of far-right electoral and polling successes across Europe, the group warned that “the biggest mistake after this election would now be for mainstream conservative parties to move even closer” to the SVP.

“On the other hand, if we treat the SVP for what it is – an extremist outsider – it will remain a minority, even with almost 30% of votes,” Operation Libero said in a statement. “It is vital for Swiss liberals to distance themselves.”

This article was amended on 27 October 2023. An earlier version of the subheading and article said that the Swiss People’s party had an improved vote share of 29%; this should have been 28%. This change was due to a vote counting error in the elections that the Federal Statistical Office announced on Wednesday 25 October 2023.