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University of Basel

Cancer. (01/2023)

Polarized parties, divided nation?

Interview: Urs Hafner

Mobilizing voters is vital for political parties. Topical issues have a greater influence on election results, however, according to political scientist Denise Traber.

Prof. Dr. Denise Traber
Political scientist Denise Traber's research includes party competition and trust in politics. (Photo: University of Basel, Eleni Kougionis)

UNI NOVA: Professor Traber, Switzerland is set to hold federal elections this fall. Would you like to venture a prediction as to which party will win and which will lose?

DENISE TRABER: No, predictions usually turn out to be wrong. I’ll make an exception, however [laughs]: If the Zurich elections in February are anything to go by, major changes are unlikely. It depends on what happens between now and late summer and which issues suddenly take center stage. The big question is what will happen with the Greens.

UNI NOVA: Doesn’t victory go to the party that ran the best campaign and mobilized their voters?

TRABER: Of course, mobilizing voters is important, but issue salience often has a greater influence on election results. Parties must decide whether and how to position themselves on issues that are dominating the public discussion.  Opposing or attempting to reinterpret a dominant issue isn’t usually a recipe for success.

UNI NOVA: In the last elections, four years ago, the Green Party emerged as the big winner.

TRABER: Yes, the Greens benefitted from heightened interest in environmental issues, which were brought to the fore by the climate movement, the Fridays for Future demonstrations and, of course, the media. The Greens won the elections even though the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (SP) defends the same positions when it comes to environmental policy. Voters associate most issues with one party. The environment belongs to the Greens and also, in part, to the Green Liberals.

UNI NOVA: The issue of global warming has become even more pressing since the last elections — no one denies it’s a problem anymore.

TRABER: Yes, but global warming is no longer the dominant issue. It’s been abruptly displaced by the asylum issue, which re-emerged from the debate around refugee accommodation in the Canton of Aargau. Reports — later corrected — that the government had made forced evictions led to a huge wave of indignation. This issue is potentially a significant one because it can be linked to migration, high rents and population growth. For parties, the way in which specific issues dominate media coverage has become even more important because, nowadays, most outlets report on the same things.

UNI NOVA: So, things currently look good for the right. Early this year, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) declared its intention to fight “woke madness” at all levels of society. It was referring to determined efforts to take account of the full range of sexual identities and to reflect this diversity in language (for example, by using the “gender asterisk” in German). Is this issue going to come up in the election campaign?

TRABER: As I said before, no one knows what will happen, and predictions usually turn out to be wrong. That being said, I don’t see this as a particularly fruitful issue for an election campaign. After all, only a relatively small number of people are interested in “wokeness”, and this is a debate that’s been imported from the US. At most, parties could use it to bolster voters’ identification with their own side and turn opinion against the opponent’s voters in the short term. In political science, this is known as “affective polarization”.

UNI NOVA: The dominant issue over the last three years — the coronavirus pandemic — has suddenly vanished.

TRABER: This was an issue that took the parties and the government completely by surprise — because there were no established formulas for them to fall back on. Following some initial confusion, the political elites engaged in the age-old debate around state influence versus economic freedom. At the same time, a movement against state restrictions on individual freedoms emerged that didn’t fit into the traditional left–right spectrum. If there had been elections during the pandemic, these issues would presumably have had a bigger impact.

UNI NOVA: In recent years, neighboring countries have seen dramatic drops in support for established parties and the emergence of new political forces. In comparison, the Swiss political spectrum has remained relatively stable. Is Switzerland a special case?

TRABER: Switzerland is a pioneer in this regard. Neighboring countries are now seeing developments that started here in the 1990s, when the polarization of the party system began, driven by the now two biggest parties — the SVP on the right and the SP on the left — both of which defend radical positions by European standards. The SVP adopted new issues that it still cultivates today: Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union, the topics of migration and asylum. The SVP became the model, so to speak, for the right-wing populist parties in Europe, while the SP maintained its clear left-wing positioning — unlike social democratic parties in other countries. Since then, new parties have emerged in the center of the political spectrum, but the left and right camps remain broadly stable.

UNI NOVA: In that case, wouldn’t you rather study the politics of Italy, for example, which is in a state of constant flux? Wouldn’t that be more exciting?

TRABER: It’s true — we don’t have as much drama here [laughs]. In exchange, we enjoy greater stability than neighboring countries, and that also has a certain appeal. Recently, there’s even been a slight increase in political trust. People value consensus and direct democracy — it takes a long time to reach a compromise and implement the results, but the decisions are broadly accepted, even by the losing side.

UNI NOVA: Politics is a world of huge contrasts: On the one side there is the left-wing politician who believes in multiple genders and supports the nationalization of banks; on the other side you have a right-wing politician who is calling for more cuts to social services, and pictures an ideal world in which women are housewives. Political commentators talk about a rift that is dividing our nation. What view do you take?

TRABER: We may have polarized parties, but we’re not a divided nation. Voters’ political attitudes have been stable for decades, although we can observe a slight shift to the left on the question of equality, for example. Voters on the right want less migration, among other things, while those on the left want Switzerland to be open to the outside world. Little has changed in this regard since the 1990s, even if the media are reporting that the country is drifting apart.

UNI NOVA: How come voters’ attitudes are so stable?

TRABER: Political views are formed at some point between childhood and young adulthood, and people often adopt the views of their parents. These attitudes then barely evolve over the course of their lives — with any changes generally accompanying a change in social environment. There’s evidence that attitudes can be influenced by external events, such as a financial crisis, but these changes are usually temporary.

UNI NOVA: Will centrist parties be able to hold their ground in the longer term?

TRABER: It’s true that such parties are seeing a steady decline in their vote share, with the exception of the Green Liberals. Centrist parties have a harder time than more extreme parties in election campaigns because they can’t take such a firm stance on issues. On the other hand, they win the most votes in parliament. They’re very successful in that arena, but the general public isn’t always aware of those successes. The centrist parties aren’t about to disappear.

UNI NOVA: For a long time, the left’s voter base was the working class. This group now mostly consists of migrants working in low-income jobs, who have no right to vote. How would things change if these people could vote?

TRABER: Yes, the SP has gained a new voter base since the 1980s: the well-educated middle class. That doesn’t mean, however, that the traditional working class has switched to other parties. Rather, this group has simply become much smaller as education has expanded – similar to other European countries. It’s hard to say what would change if the right to vote were extended — there’s been almost no research in this area. I suspect not much. Only some of these people would vote for the left, and turnout would presumably be lower in this group than in the population that currently has the right to vote.

UNI NOVA: How come?

TRABER: This is another area where we don’t have much data. In principle, low-income workers vote less than other sections of the population.

UNI NOVA: Since the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the economic situation has been getting worse. A growing section of the population is living in or at risk of poverty. How come their voices are so rarely heard in parliament?

TRABER: Switzerland is still one of the richest countries in the world. Now, it too is facing rising energy prices, rents and health insurance costs. I suspect these issues will play a role in the election campaign. Almost nine percent of the population is affected by poverty, and the at-risk-of-poverty rate is just over 15 percent — and gradually rising. These people do not have seats in parliament. Meanwhile, the majority of politicians come from the middle class. As I said, the poorest people in society hardly vote.

UNI NOVA: Poverty is traditionally an issue of the left. Will it gain more traction in the future?

TRABER: Voters attribute the greatest expertise in social politics and the greatest commitment to these issues to the SP, but there are also attempts by the right, particularly the SVP, to appeal to more economically disadvantaged social strata — with some success.

UNI NOVA: In terms of the polarization of the party system, Switzerland was a pioneer in Europe. Is it part of the rearguard when it comes to the issue of poverty?

TRABER: Parties have a good sense of what is on people’s minds. They address these issues in election campaigns and propose solutions. Poverty hasn’t been a dominant issue in Switzerland in recent decades, partly because economic inequality is relatively low by international standards. Of course, this could change over the coming years, but as I said before, I prefer not to make predictions.

The conversation took place in early March 2023.

More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (May 2023).

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