Post-truth Politics in Switzerland and Threats to Direct Democracy

By Francesca Bosisio

In the days that followed Donald Trump’s election, the media celebrated the dawn of a new Age, characterized by post-truth or post-fact politics. A point in the history of modern society in which a previously authoritative source of knowledge is neither considered as a reliable source of information nor a need. But post-truth politics, as opposed to its branding, is not a new phenomenon: worldwide, candidates have long ago diverted facts and statistics and appealed to people’s emotions to reach large parts of the population. The spread of social media has reinforced this trend. On the one hand, social media gave an audience to people who do not want or do not have the opportunity to go public via traditional mass media. On the other hand, it is allegedly more difficult to deny, challenge or improve the contents of a discussion happening on the boundaries of the private and the public sphere.

In Switzerland, few mass media commented on the post-truth or post-fact phenomenon in the days that preceded or followed Trump’s election. Only few papers tried to compare the results of the US presidential election with the raising of populist movements in Switzerland. An editorial on “Le Matin” wrote that: “Some claim, referring to statistics, that there is no similar risk [of financial powerlessness] in Switzerland. As if politics was only a matter of data, while everywhere the anger is growing. […] [T]he feeling of economic oppression and the anguish of not having enough reserve to face a harsh blow altogether weaken solidarity and give points to the populist formations.” In the same period, the “Tages-Anzeiger” also drew a parallel between Switzerland, France, and the US by highlighting that in these countries mistrust of authorities has become a leit motiv of right-wing parties.

The relative absence of critical analysis within the Swiss mass media landscape may reflect the country’s tradition for direct democracy, that is, the opportunity to elect their own representatives, to vote for any constitutional change and the right to submit topics to the people’s vote. The common belief held is that this will produce a stable and consensual social order, maintained by trustworthy representatives and authorities. However, recent exploits of a popular right-wing formation, the Central Democratic Party (CDP), demonstrate that Switzerland has engaged for several years in forms of post-truth politics that at the same time threaten the authorities and the core values of the Swiss democratic system that it claims to defend.

Since the 2000s, the CDP launched initiatives that mainly target immigrants or the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the European Union. The assumption, demonstrated in statistics and graphs, is that immigrants are a danger for both the welfare and the security of the Swiss people. Two initiatives are noteworthy. In 2014, the CDP made people vote against mass immigration: during the campaigns, data showing that in 50 years 50% of the Swiss population will be composed of foreigner generated buzz in both mass and social media. The posters depicted Switzerland spoiled by a black fruitful tree. Recently, the campaign against facilitated naturalisation for third generation immigrants depict a black woman with a burka paired with the slogan “No to uncontrolled naturalisation.” The word “uncontrolled” is clearly overstated, as the criteria to benefit of a facilitated naturalisation process will be very strict. Furthermore, this process will concern less than 0.3% of the population, half of whom are Italians. Pairing the message with a symbol of Muslim culture clearly aims at igniting xenophobic fears. The Muslim woman wearing a burka was already successfully used in a previous campaign against the construction of minarets in 2009. The data produced by the CDP are hardly ever contextualized. This contrast with the policy of governmental offices, which must publicly disclose their statistics. But even though many experts, representatives, and parties suggested that the data were flawed, the people accepted the initiatives against the construction of minarets and against mass immigration.

In a recent post, Oskar Freysinger, a CDP representative, asked “What does the victory of Trump mean for us?” Whether “us” is the party or the Swiss people depends on the fragment considered. Quoting Le Matin (11/15/17) he argues: “The ideas that led to Trump’s victory are already widespread and have materialized in Switzerland and this is only thanks to the CDP. The national impetus, the stress on sovereignty and the local-centered patriotism of the most powerful nation of the world will inspire our party and give it wings”. In clear CDP-style, he also highlights that “Following a study, 96% of the media outlets were on Hillary’s side. (…) It is self-evident that they were wrong and failed at their duty of providing information, privileging moralisation.”

Since the 2000s, the CDP has multiplied xenophobic and anti-EU initiatives. These sum up with constitutional changes, referendums, and other initiatives. Also, from 2001 to 2016, people in Switzerland were called to vote 50 times on a total of 135 political subjects. Some of the initiatives proposed by the CDP conflict with European and international treaties and are therefore difficult to enforce. Those difficulties lead the CDP to inaugurate a new initiative aiming at ensuring the sovereignty of the Swiss constitution over international and European agreements. In contrast, other parties sought to restrict the criteria for the submission of subjects to the people’s vote, one of the corner stones of the Swiss system of direct democracy.

The campaigns and arguments proposed by the CDP suggest that Switzerland has been concerned with post-truth politics for at least 10 years. With regard to Mr Freysinger’s statement, Trump’s election could be seen as an opportunity for the CDP to intensify its activities, increasing the (already existing) threat to the Swiss system of direct democracy. For this reason, it becomes urgent to acknowledge publicly this trend and improve people’s ability to think critically and challenge it. The Swiss people finally voted to allow third generation immigrants to have a facilitated naturalisation, suggesting that they could see clearly through CDP slogans. However, despite this result and the high-level education offered in Switzerland, current events–nationally and internationally–emphasize more than ever the need to raise public awareness of the contingent nature of data and so-called facts.

Francesca Bosisio is a post-doctoral visiting fellow with the STS Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she studies the emergence of personalized medicine in Switzerland. She is also an associate researcher at the Health Psychology Research Centre and of the Interface Science-Society of the University of Lausanne. This post reflects her views and not the institution’s.