Swiss election in shadow of Gaza war set to strengthen anti-immigrant party

European country set to debate whether to designate Hamas a terrorist group

The Swiss People's Party has asked voters to back it on Sunday 'so that Switzerland remains Switzerland'. EPA
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An anti-immigration party is poised to make gains in the Swiss election on Sunday after fanning fears about asylum seekers and pro-Hamas protests in the final days of the campaign.

The conflict in Gaza has overshadowed the election and sparked debate over whether Switzerland, as a neutral country, would be taking sides if it designated Hamas a terrorist group.

Seven parties made a joint statement on Friday condemning anti-Semitic incidents they said had escalated in recent days, saying there “can be no place for anti-Semitism in Switzerland”.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has gone further by calling for a ban on all pro-Palestinian protests, accusing “Arab migrants” of celebrating the Hamas attacks on Israel.

It uses pictures of hooded young men to warn of criminals “disguised as asylum seekers” and highlights alleged cases of violence perpetrated by North African migrants, asking voters if these are a “new normality” and calling for "Switzerland to remain Switzerland".

That campaign earned a rebuke from the Alpine country's anti-racism commission, which wrote a letter to the SVP accusing it of “distorting reality” and fostering “fear and rejection” of foreigners in its election messaging.

“The themes of the campaign are not only racist and xenophobic, but also rabble-rousing and consciously stir up negative emotions”, wrote the commission’s president Martine Brunschwig.

The party angrily rejected what it called the commission’s interference in the election campaign, saying Swiss voters had supported a tough stance in the country’s frequent referendums. Landlocked Switzerland is not a member of the European Union but is part of the Schengen open-borders zone.

“Being silent about high and rising crime by foreigners and criminal smuggling gangs means tolerating them. The SVP will not take part in that,” the party’s president Marco Chiesa said.

Late polls show the SVP on course to consolidate its position as Switzerland’s strongest party with about 28 per cent of the vote, matching a trend in which nationalist parties have made gains in neighbouring Germany and Italy.

Switzerland's unusual political system means four ruling parties including the SVP habitually stay in power regardless of the outcome, but a strong result could increase the right’s sway over policy.

The opinion polls also predict a reversal of a “green wave” in which environmentalists made gains in the 2019 election, potentially weakening their case to break the four-party stranglehold.

The other three ruling parties, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Centre, are set to battle for second place in the new parliament, which will elect Switzerland’s seven-member ruling executive in December.

Hamas ban

Any ban on Hamas might require a law change from the new parliament, as current rules say Switzerland can only ban organisations – such as ISIS and Al Qaeda – that are subject to UN sanctions, which is not the case with Hamas.

Foreign policy officials are examining their legal options after the government said it supported the idea of listing Hamas as terrorists. Germany has also announced it will ban the group’s activities.

A further concern is that taking an anti-Hamas position could compromise Switzerland’s long-standing role as a mediator, although the government has said it has no contact with the group.

“If you want to mediate in a conflict, you have to be ready to speak to all the actors who play an important role” in it, Laurent Goetschel, the director of research institute Swisspeace, told public broadcaster SRF.

Switzerland is reviewing its aid to the Middle East in light of the war in Gaza, having last year adopted EU sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. It has also called on Hamas to release hostages taken in Israel.

Updated: October 20, 2023, 11:48 AM