Anti-immigrant Party makes Big Gains in Swiss Election
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Until the nineties, many considered Switzerland to be a good example of how to build a successful multiracial society. Some commentators even went as far as to claim that if Japan was serious about internationalizing, it should try to emulate the Swiss model. However, in the recent Swiss general election, sweeping gains by the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) have shattered this image. As in many other European countries, rising anti-immigrant sentiment is being skillfully exploited by right-wing parties. These troubling developments are re-shaping European attitudes towards immigration and may eventually influence Japanese political discourse.
The dramatic outcome of the October 2003 Swiss parliamentary election effectively smashes the delicate, decades-old system of consensus government. The once tiny anti-immigrant Swiss People's Party (SVP) captured the biggest share of the vote, making it the dominant force in Swiss politics. With almost 27% of ballots cast, the SVP increased its number of lawmakers by 11 to a total of 55 in the 200-member Swiss parliament.
Over the last decade, the party has made spectacular gains, garnering 22.5% in the previous 1999 election. The SVP was originally a relatively small party based in eastern Switzerland, but its strong anti-immigrant stance has greatly broadened its national appeal.
The SVP ran an aggressive anti-foreigner campaign, which saw asylum seekers portrayed as criminals and drug dealers. The controversial SVP tactics drew attention as well as criticism from the mainstream European media. In Switzerland, the election itself was completely dominated by the SVP's hard-hitting anti-foreigner rhetoric, which drowned out all other issues. The party pinned its entire electoral hopes around its tough stance on immigration.
By European standards Switzerland has fairly high levels of immigration, but a rising unemployment rate of almost 4% has bred resentment about this policy. The SVP shamelessly exploited this unease with newspaper advertisements and campaign posters that portrayed asylum seekers as criminals.
In one newspaper advertising campaign the SVP described eastern European immigrants as "a brutal Albanian mafia," claiming that "Instead of severely punishing stubborn, criminal asylum-seekers, we give them apartments, jobs and welfare." It also implied that non-Swiss nationals have played a key role in the recent surge in violent crime. Furthermore, it claimed that drug related crime was dominated by "black Africans."
So aggressive was this approached that it attracted international criticism. The spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ron Redmond, condemned the SVP election campaign as "among the most blatantly anti-asylum seen in Europe."
BBC News quoted Redmond as saying, "The politicization of the asylum issue, and rampant manipulation of facts and statistics... to cast asylum seekers and refugees in as ugly a light as possible in support of a fixed political agenda is a disturbing phenomenon wherever it happens." In his view, during the election some politicians were deliberately using the term "asylum seeker" alongside words such as "terrorist", "criminal", "rape", "disease", "fraud" and "bogus" with the specific aim of stirring up racial hatred.
The Swiss election results illustrate a wider European trend in which anti-immigrant sentiment is increasingly becoming an important political issue. Although by European standards Japan has a very small amount of immigration, in recent years anti-foreigner sentiment has also been on the rise with several prominent politicians depicting the country's growing Chinese community as being a hotbed for criminal activity. In Japan, no major anti-foreigner party has yet emerged, but Europe indicates that right-wing politicians will probably seek to exploit the issue for electoral gain.
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