Swiss Voice

Article excerpt

Abstract:

In the Swiss general elections on October 24, 1999, the Swiss People's Party, the only one of the 4 major Swiss political parties to oppose European integration, stunned the European political establishment by gaining 7.9% of the vote from the last election in 1995, leaping from last to first place in the popular vote.

Text:

In the Swiss general elections on October 24, 1999, the Swiss People's Party (SPP), the only one of the four major Swiss political parties to oppose European integration, stunned the European political establishment by gaining 7.9 percent of the vote from the last election in 1995, leaping from last to first place in the popular vote. This increase marks the largest change in popular vote between consecutive elections since World War II. Immediately after the election, Christoph Blocher, the party's charismatic leader, called for a second seat in the seven-seat Federal Council-a small change with the potential to destroy the "magic formula" coalition that has governed the country for the last 40 years.

More importantly, the election returns seem to indicate a repudiation of the recent gradual movement toward further European integration toward which the last two governments have worked.

In an increasingly economically integrated Europe, most of the government has realized that Switzerland can no longer maintain the celebrated non-engagement by which it has achieved its great economic success. Switzerland's ability to provide an oasis of stability for investment in the midst of a tumultuous Europe has become less important as the waters of stability have flowed into the rest of Europe after the Cold War era. In recent politics, as analyst Kate Millar noted, "the government has never hidden its support for joining the EU and the UN."

The people, however, have not been so quick to see the virtues of integration. Because Switzerland is a direct democracy, all contentious legislation, including any pertaining to international cooperation, must be affirmed in a referendum before becoming law. The most momentous referendum was in 1992 when the people rejected the government's proposal that Switzerland join the European Economic Area (EEA), the economic forerunner to the EU. This vote precluded the chance of a vote on EU membership.

In the people's eyes, EU membership would be equivalent to relinquishing their strict neutrality and independence from the world arena, two cherished aspects of Swiss life. In particular, the Swiss are unwilling to sacrifice the direct democracy system by which they approve or reject government proposals, a system that has existed since the founding of the modern Swiss confederation in 1849. This fear of losing control over the passage of laws is well-founded: according to a Swiss pro-Europe Federal Council study in 1988, 31 percent of the 410 federal laws passed since 1973 would have fallen under the auspices of the EU. …