Switzerland’s new immigration restrictions have caused a stir in the European Union, which may reciprocate and pass restrictions on Swiss citizens living in Europe. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) launched the referendum, or federal popular initiative, which was approved by a narrow 50.4% majority of Swiss citizens and a majority of the cantons. The SVP’s campaign to limit immigration has overlapped with a 2009 ban on minarets and an unsavory advertising campaign. (The SVP’s 2007 black sheep ad shows the danger of how insufficiently ambiguous symbols can fail to gain acclamation and become items in public discourse.)
Even if its traditional Landsgemeinde belong mostly to the past, the Swiss political system is the closest thing in the world to a direct democracy with federal aspects. In a conservative society (women only got the franchise in 1971) where upwards of 20% of residents are foreign nationals, this anti-immigration populism is unsurprising.
Christoph Blocher and the Zürich wing of the SVP, which has driven the referendum campaigns, operate in a political system starkly at odds with the bureaucratic centralization and supranational model of the European Union.
To what extent do the structures of the Swiss political system, with its democratic center of gravity, produce the “tone” of Swiss politics, particularly its visceral, xenophobic outcomes? The Swiss seem insulated from the politics of the “New Class”, driven by elite consensus and autonomous technocratic decision-making. Unlike the European system, Switzerland’s system is legitimacy-rich. Is Swiss populism the tradeoff that critics of the EU’s democratic deficit are willing to countenance?