He is the “Trump before Trump,” said Steve Bannon. During a presentation in Zurich this past spring, the ex-adviser of the U.S. President was not referring to Silvio Berlusconi or Viktor Orbán, veteran European populists well known on the international stage. Bannon was talking about Christoph Blocher, a man from a small, neutral country in the heart of Europe best known for its banks, cheese, and stability. “Actually everything began in Switzerland in 1992,” added the American populist mastermind.
Bannon was not wrong. Of all places, it was Switzerland that, almost 30 years ago, hosted the dress rehearsal for what is shaking up the Western world right now.
The year 1992 was when Mr. Blocher rose to his first grand victory by preventing Switzerland from entering the European Economic Area—and, at a later stage, prevented it from entering the European Union as well. The billionaire did this alone, against the government, and without the support of the leading political parties or business associations. “Dr. Blocher,” Bannon concluded, had “stood up against the establishment. The Swiss establishment, the European establishment. The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal vilified him.” Blocher’s allies were the people, or rather the 50.3 percent of the people who supported him in the referendum.
The magnitude of this victory is hard to reconstruct today for those who have grown accustomed to a European Union plagued by crisis and bad press. But in the early 1990s, the European Union was still considered one of the most promising political projects ever undertaken by the West. A colossal peace endeavor was being established and a vast economic area constructed with the noble aim of making it possible for Europe to grow close again after the end of the Cold War. And Switzerland seemed well on its way to becoming a part of it all. Despite criticism of the political European Union, it seemed clear that membership in the European Economic Area would be necessary to avoid economic isolation. There was no alternative—or at least that’s what the Swiss establishment thought.
Blocher thought differently. While the old frontiers in Europe were being torn down, he fought hard to build borders around Switzerland. He advocated for national sovereignty, just as the nation-state was being dismissed as obsolete. In his campaigns against the European Union he depicted Brussels as the new Moscow, aiming to subjugate all countries. Switzerland, he feared, would become a colony of the European Union. “We haven’t fought for 700 years against foreign judges to now exchange our rights with those of a foreign law and foreign judges. We want to stay free and independent,” said Blocher in one of his countless speeches before the referendum. This is exactly how EU critics argue today.
With his win, a true right-wing populist was born, and Blocher began to understand the power of direct democracy, initiatives, and referenda to reverse decisions made by government and lawmakers. The people, he believed, were wiser than the elite. Since its founding in 1848, Switzerland had stood, with few exceptions, as a model of democracy. The image of a self-determining people stretches back to Rousseau, who in his time had already waxed lyrical about Switzerland’s cantonal assemblies, a public gathering, where the people voted openly by raising their hands—one of the oldest forms of direct democracy.
Prior to Blocher, being average was considered a virtue. Exceptional men like Alfred Escher, the founder of Credit Suisse and the father of Swiss industrialization, had been mercilessly dressed down after they began to hold too much power. No one, held popular opinion, should soar up above his countrymen, for this could destroy the political balance in a country with 26 cantons and four languages. But Blocher simply ignored conventional wisdom, taking extreme, attention-grabbing positions that made direct democracy fertile for him and his ideas. To the charge of populism, he has only ever had one answer: “They call me a populist, but I don’t even know what that is.” His life goal was to prevent Switzerland from entering the European Union. He didn’t want to do it, he said. He had to. It was his “mission.”
Blocher’s 1992 victory also succeeded in transforming the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) from a centrist, pragmatic party into a right-wing opposition machine. Under Blocher’s leadership, it focused on only a few issues, most having to do with being anti-EU, anti-foreigner, and anti-establishment. This agenda would eventually mold the programs of right-wing populist parties today. Thanks to Blocher, the SVP has increased its share of the vote from around 12 to almost 30 percent, becoming the strongest political force in the country. Furthermore, the party widened its appeal to include not only farmers and tradesmen, but also blue-collar workers who traditionally supported the Liberal and the Social Democratic parties. All this made the SVP one of the most successful right-wing parties in Europe.
Blocher and the People
Like today’s populists—especially U.S. President Donald Trump—Blocher has an extraordinary talent to speak to all people, directly, in a no-frills, sometimes brutal dialectic, one that does not shy away from ruthlessly attacking establishment figures or minorities. Blocher broke free from “political correctness” before that phrase had even entered the discourse. Foreigners were reviled as criminals, the leading liberal party in Switzerland as a bunch of soft, yellow-bellied nepotists. Lawyers didn’t fare much better. Blocher reserved his most fervent invective for the “elites”, especially the classe politique, which the erstwhile industrialist more or less transformed into a four-letter word. As a young man, Christoph had completed an apprenticeship in farming before going on to study law and becoming a manager and later an entrepreneur—he knew how the common man talked. In 1992, Blocher held speeches from atop hay bales and walked through the center of Zürich with traditional cowbells, a cigar stub between his teeth. His inelegant gestures, coarse facial expressions, and slightly oversized suits all made him seem like the quintessential everyman, even though he was anything but.
It doesn’t really matter that Blocher is a billionaire with an impressive art collection, that he earned some of his money on the stock market, or that he has a villa on the Goldküste with a view of lake Zürich, as well as a mountain castle in Rhäzüns. As with Trump, Blocher’s wealth seems to legitimize him somehow, authorizing him to speak on behalf of “the people.” Over the decades he has held bombastic speeches in multipurpose halls and started his own television show, Tele Blocher, where every week he is interviewed by the same journalist.
Blocher is intentionally provocative. For years other political parties did not know how to deal with his agitations and disruptions. Mostly they just attacked him—which only made Blocher more sympathetic in the eyes of his constituents. In the United States, the Democrats are experiencing something similar; like Blocher, Trump often appears invulnerable to criticism.
But unlike Trump, who rarely goes beyond dog-whistles and innuendos, Blocher embraces a much more overt style of xenophobic politics. He caused an international uproar when he ran billboard advertisements that depicted, among other things, a black sheep being kicked out of a map of Switzerland and a pair of dark-skinned hands grabbing at a Swiss passport. Kosovar Albanians in Switzerland were portrayed as knife-brandishing thugs; minarets were depicted as missiles. These SVP posters have now become part of the iconography of right-wing populism, popping up at demonstrations in France, Austria, and Belgium. Even Russian extremists have been known to use them at protests.
Blocher was so controversial that he managed to divide the whole country, as Trump has managed to do today in the United States. You are either for or against him. You see him either as a messiah who understands the fears of the simple man, or as the fomenter who has made xenophobia acceptable. There is no in-between.
As opposed to camera-shy Swiss politicians of times gone by, Blocher has searched for the limelight. The media was drawn to him like a magnet. They clashed with him, criticized him on all fronts, and gave him the attention he wanted and needed to rise to become the most influential politician in the country. Like Trump, Blocher used his war with the media to his advantage, accusing them of being leftist and partisan and therefore not credible. Although he has never reached the ubiquitous media presence of Italy’s Berlusconi, Blocher has tried to build up a quasi-media empire of his own in order to spread his worldview. He tried to influence public opinion through the editor-in-chief and publisher of the weekly magazine Die Weltwoche, who venerates him. Also, he bought the regional newspaper Basler Zeitung (BaZ), placing at its helm a right-leaning editor in chief. Although he had to sell his BaZ-stake as the newspaper lost readers, he made sure to maintain a high media presence by purchasing two dozen small local free newspapers. It is in these that he frequently writes columns, reaching up to 800,000 Swiss people.
Then in 2014, the SVP celebrated a further victory against the European Union when the Swiss people decided to place dramatic limits on immigration. Take back control was the most important argument in Switzerland. The country was not part of the European Union, but bilateral contracts had effectively linked Bern with Brussels for some time. Switzerland belonged to the single market and allowed the free movement of labor and capital across its borders, as if it were an EU member state. Thanks to its access to the European market the Swiss economy had grown stronger. But along with the exchange of goods came immigration. Lured by the hope of higher incomes, almost 80,000 migrants per year crossed the border, ten times the projected figures. And the immigrants weren’t just low-skilled workers from Poland, as was the case in the United Kingdom, but also highly qualified doctors, managers, and academics from Germany. This unsettled the Swiss. Many began to fear for their jobs. However, the elite remained blind to their fears. “We need immigration, we need skilled labor,” was their mantra. The SVP launched an initiative to halt mass immigration. Their mantra echoed the people’s concerns, advocated for stronger immigration controls, and concretized their fears of lost jobs and increased rents.
The SVP won the vote, leaving the establishment perplexed once again. Two years later, take back control became the most important argument in favor of Brexit. In Switzerland, however, the initial reductions in immigration were actually quite small, and for this reason the SVP now plans to introduce a new initiative, which would terminate the free movement of labor with the European Union altogether. This would mean an end to all bilateral contracts with the European Union, which would have disastrous consequences for Switzerland.
Just a few weeks ago came another sobering reminder of how dangerous Blocher is for democracy and its institutions. The SVP was attempting to pass an initiative stipulating that Swiss law always overrides international law—“Switzerland First,” one might say. For Blocher, the main point was that all future initiatives and referenda should be able to be implemented word for word, without constraining discretion from the European Union, even if this contradicted internationally recognized human rights.
Thankfully, the initiative failed, but that it was introduced at all illustrates what is so terrifying about Blocher: He fundamentally believes the people’s decisions should take priority over parliament, the separation of powers, and even the rule of law. Trump has stoked similar fears in the United States by criticizing judges who strike down his executive orders and appointing Federal judges who appear to hew to a partisan line in their decisions.
How is it that a small country like Switzerland could birth a political figure that has so many similarities to Donald Trump? How is it possible that Blocher anticipated so many right-wing debates in Europe and became a role model for European populists?
The reason in Switzerland, in any case, is simple: direct democracy. If one can collect 100,000 Swiss signatures in favor of a constitutional amendment, that petition will be sent to a national vote. These initiatives function like a seismograph of the population’s condition and its political preferences. Any resentment they might feel towards the ruling class can quickly be transformed into a concrete set of constitutional demands. In this way, a political party can put new issues on the table and determine the direction of debate.
Blocher knew this only too well. He has been in continuous campaign-mode since 1992. The SVP was astute enough to observe early on that many voters were dissatisfied with the way things were going. This helped them to win votes and change the course of politics—not only in 1992 with the Europe vote, but also in 2009 when Switzerland implemented a ban on the construction of minarets. Then in 2010, Swiss voters approved a referendum to deport criminal immigrants. That vote was followed by the decision to restrict raw immigration flows. Small wonder the AfD and Front National look enviously across their country’s borders to Switzerland.
Nevertheless, despite 30 years of Blocher’s right-wing populism, Switzerland has not become a country of extremes. Democracy functions. Checks and balances work. “Fake news” has little impact. Trust in the Federal Council remains strong, and the economy is still growing. So how do these facts square with the populists’ successes? Do other European states have little to fear from their own populists after all?
On this particular question, it’s important to understand that the Swiss political system differs in key ways from most other European countries. Switzerland is a Konkordanzdemokratie, meaning that the four main political parties are present in the national government, also known as the Federal Council. It is therefore not a parliamentary system with a government versus an opposition, the more common model in Europe. In Switzerland, the two parliamentary chambers elect seven representatives to the Federal Council, which then governs as a collegial body—it must remain unanimous when presenting cabinet decisions to the public. Today, for example, the Federal Council consists of two representatives from the SVP, two representatives from the Liberal Party, two representatives from the Social Democrats, and one representative from the Christian People’s Party, all of whom must compromise and work together in order to achieve consensus.
SVP, then, has almost always been part of the government and therefore had government responsibilities. Because of this, the SVP could influence politics in Switzerland and push it to the right. By the same token, however, this incorporation into the government has also moderated the party, as it ultimately has to bear responsibility for its political decisions. So while the SVP’s own government representatives would find it difficult to implement their party’s more extreme proposals, it would also be unthinkable for Switzerland’s right-wing populists to be locked out of government as a matter of principle, as is the case today in Sweden.
In fact, the Swiss parliament haven’t even shied away from betting big on the populists, electing Blocher to the Federal Council in 2003, for instance, which effectively placed him at the head of the very classe politique that despised him. As it happened, Blocher was largely inept in this new role. In Switzerland every Federal councilor is bound to defend the decisions of the government externally, even if he does not stand by them himself. Blocher did this badly but remained the leader of his party, even in the Federal Council. After four difficult years, the parliament, in a kind of political coup hitherto unseen in Switzerland, voted Blocher out. Instead they elected a more moderate member of the SVP into the Federal Council.
Nevertheless, the political inclusion of the SVP has shifted Swiss politics, and perhaps Swiss society as well, to the right. Critics are concerned that the SVP has normalized a destructive xenophobic discourse. They feel that including the party in the Federal Council was wrong. Notwithstanding the strengths of this argument, it does not take into consideration the fact that the SVP has 30 percent of the population behind it. To fail to respect the concerns and wishes of these voters would lead to serious consequences. It would stifle open debate, drive the deplorable further in their hatred of the elite, and lead them gradually to turn their back on politics. The inclusion of the SVP has thus averted the polarization of the country. When one contrasts this with the experience of polarization in the United States, the value of this accomplishment cannot be overstated.
The 78-year-old Blocher has stepped back from the party leadership. He remains its mastermind, however, and will continue to pursue his mission of keeping Switzerland out of the European Union until the bitter end. So far, he seems to be succeeding: Negotiations for bilateral contracts have been stalled for years, and the SVP is threatening even more anti-EU initiatives.
So Switzerland is doing well despite almost 30 years of populism. If we were to draw one lesson out of these three decades, it would be that the SVP was only ever successful when a significant part of the population found itself disgruntled or insecure. Populism is not an ideology in any conventional sense; rather, it’s an instrument to gain power—and its basis is always widespread discontent. The best course for Europe and the United States is therefore not to fight right-wing populists like the SVP, but instead to fight against the discontent that fuels their power.