Opinions - 05.10.2015 - 00:00 

Refugee crisis and elections

The issues of migration and asylum will determine the result of the Swiss parliamentary elections – but in which direction? A view of the election campaign and its possible results by Silvano Moeckli.


5 October 2015. In an election campaign, the political parties basically promote themselves with the help of three “products”: the party’s image, its exponents and certain issues. A political party is intended to convey a picture of coherence to the outside world. Candidates do not only extol their political qualities but also their personal ones. With regard to issues, there are questions of competence and questions of position. Political parties are regarded as competent in connection with certain issues, and they should take up clear positions with respect to controversial political issues.

The parties try to “sell” the three political products as well as they can through traditional and new communication channels. Of course, the parties must now also use the new media, and they do so assiduously, as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) illustrates with its entertaining video clips on YouTube. The decisive part, however, is still played by the traditional channels, i.e. mass media like television, radio and the press, as well as advertising with posters, flyers and giveaways. Immediate communication on the hustings and in the street remains important – in spite of social media.

Political context is pivotal

The political parties – albeit equipped with different resources – are able to shape their sales strategy themselves, and they also try to dominate political communication through the core issues and best-known exponents.

What they cannot choose for themselves is the wider political context in which the election campaign and the elections take place. And in 2015, it is exactly this wider political context that is having an unpredictable impact on the election results. Although the foreigners/migration/asylum issue already came out on top in 2003 and 2007, the Swiss Radio and Television (SRG) Election Barometer for August 2015 showed that owing to the current refugee flows and the images and news which stir up or annoy the electorate every day, this is the most pressing political problem for almost two thirds of the interviewees. The second important problem, namely EU/Europe/bilateral agreements, lags far behind at 14 per cent. The issue was never so dominant in the preceding five parliamentary elections. This raises the question as to who will benefit with regard to the election result and who will be harmed.

Forecasts must be treated with caution

This question cannot be answered unequivocally. Of course we always have the election forecasts which have come about by different methods, among them the SRG Election Barometer, the online surveys conducted by the 20 Minuten free daily and the Tages-Anzeiger’s Election Stock Exchange, and forecasts are made on the basis of cantonal elections. These forecasts tend to predict slight gains for the SVP, and the Liberals (FDP). The Bourgeois Democratic Party (BDP), the Christian Democrats (CVP), the Greens (GPS) and the Green Liberals (GLP) will sustain slight losses, and the Social Democrats (SP) are likely to stagnate.

Since the producers of such forecasts naturally look at the other experts’ results, it is perfectly possible for this to lead to some kind of herd behaviour, and the election results can then be completely different, as we experienced with the general elections in the UK in May this year. The difficult thing about election forecasts in Switzerland is the prediction of mobilisation. With a turnout of below 50 per cent, those political forces will gain which are most successful at luring their supporters to the ballot box. A highly emotional issue like the refugee flows will naturally mobilise people – but which ones? A “Summer’s Tale” and the “welcoming culture” may well mobilise voters in the left-green spectrum who find that Switzerland, too, ought to be more generous with regard to refugees. In the other camp, there are of course also those who tend to occupy a defensive position and primarily see the economic migrants and the undesirable side effects of immigration. This is likely to find too little expression in the media mainstream.

The mood with regard to refugees might well turn precisely in the final stages of the election campaign. A few negative headlines in connection with the refugees thronging into Western Europe would suffice to have such an effect. If this happens, then it will be primarily that party which, in comparison with 2007 and 2011, has banked on fun rather than dramatisation: the SVP.

No landslide victory to be expected

A majority of augurs expect a “shift to the right” to be the most likely election result, i.e. election gains for the SVP and the FDP as mentioned above. However, this must not be mistaken for a “landslide”. Four years ago, the middle-of-the-road parties won. If there were now a slight shift to the right, this would be one of the usual political cycles in Switzerland. After 18 October 2015, Switzerland will still remain among the world’s most politically stable countries. And as in 2011, the SMI will be unlikely to be impressed by the election result.

Picture: bauzaun. /

Discover our special topics