The Swiss People’s Party (German: Schweizerische Volkspartei, SVP; Romansh: Partida populara Svizra, PPS), also known as the Democratic Union of the Centre (French: Union démocratique du centre, UDC; Italian: Unione Democratica di Centro, UDC), is a national conservative and right-wing populist political party in Switzerland. Chaired by Toni Brunner with Christoph Blocher as Vice President, the party is the largest party in the Federal Assembly, with 65 members of the National Council and 5 of the Council of States.
The SVP originated in 1971 as a merger of the Party of Farmers, Traders and Independents (BGB) and the Democratic Party, while the BGB in turn had been founded in the context of the emerging local farmers’ parties in the late 1910s. The SVP initially didn’t witness any increased support beyond that of the BGB, retaining around 11% of the vote through the 1970s and 1980s. This changed however during the 1990s, when the party underwent deep structural and ideological changes under the influence of Christoph Blocher; the SVP then became the strongest party in Switzerland by the 2000s.
In line with the changes fostered by Blocher, the party started to focus increasingly on issues such as euroscepticism and opposition to mass immigration. As of 2015 the SVP has 54 seats in the Federal Assembly, and its vote share of 29% in the 2007 Federal Council election was the highest vote ever recorded for a single party in Switzerland. When Blocher failed to win re-election as a Federal Councillor in 2007, moderates within the party split off, forming the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP). The SVP does not belong to any Europe-wide party, but sits with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in PACE, while its youth wing has joined the European Young Conservatives and thus the International Young Democrat Union.
Background, farmers’ parties
The early origins of the SVP go back to the late 1910s, when numerous cantonal farmers’ parties where founded in agrarian, Protestant, German-speaking parts of Switzerland. While the Free Democratic Party had earlier been a popular party for farmers, this changed during World War I when the party had mainly defended the interests of industrialists and consumer circles. When proportional representation was introduced in 1919, the new farmers’ parties won significant electoral support, especially in Zürich and Bern, and eventually also gained representation in parliament and government. By 1929, the coalition of farmers’ parties had gained enough influence to get one of their leaders, Rudolf Minger, elected to the Federal Council.
In 1936, a representative party was founded on the national level, called the Party of Farmers, Traders and Independents (BGB). During the 1930s, the BGB entered the mainstream of Swiss politics as a right-wing conservative party in the bourgeois bloc. While the party opposed any kind of socialist ideas such as internationalism and anti-militarism, it sought to represent local Swiss traders and farmers against big business and international capital.
The BGB contributed strongly to the establishment of the Swiss national ideology known as the Geistige Landesverteidigung (Spiritual Defence of the Nation), which was largely responsible for the growing Swiss sociocultural and political cohesion from the 1930s. In the party’s fight against left-wing ideologies, sections of party officials and farmers voiced understanding, or failed to distance themselves from the emerging fascist movements. After World War II, the BGB contributed to the establishment of the characteristic Swiss post-war consensual politics, social agreements and economic growth policies. The party continued to be a reliable political partner with the Swiss Conservative People’s Party and the Free Democratic Party.
Early years (1971–1980s)
In 1971, the BGB changed its name to the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) after it merged with the Democratic Party from Glarus and Graubünden. The Democratic Party had been supported particularly by workers, and the SVP sought to expand its electoral base towards these, as the traditional BGB base in the rural population had started to lose its importance in the post-war era. As the Democratic Party had represented centrist, social-liberal positions, the course of the SVP shifted towards the political centre following internal debates. The new party however continued to see its level of support at around 11%, the same as the former BGB throughout the post-war era. Internal debates continued, and the 1980s saw growing conflicts between the Bern and Zürich cantonal branches, where the former branch represented the centrist faction, and the latter looked to put new issues on the political agenda.
When the young entrepreneur Christoph Blocher was elected president of the Zürich SVP in 1977, he declared his intent to oversee significant change in the political line of the Zürich SVP, bringing an end to debates that aimed to open the party up to a wide array of opinions. Blocher soon consolidated his power in Zürich, and began to renew the organisational structures, activities, campaigning style and political agenda of the local branch. The young members of the party was boosted with the establishment of a cantonal Young SVP (JSVP) in 1977, as well as political training courses. The ideology of the Zürich branch was also reinforced, and the rhetoric hardened, which resulted in the best election result for the Zürich branch in fifty years in the 1979 federal election, with an increase from 11.3% to 14.5%. This was contrasted with the stable level in the other cantons, although the support also stagnated in Zürich through the 1980s.
Rise of the new SVP (1990s–present)
The struggle between the SVP’s largest branches of Bern and Zürich continued into the early 1990s. While the Bern-oriented faction represented the old moderate style, the Zürich-oriented wing led by Christoph Blocher represented a new radical right-wing populist agenda. The Zürich wing began to politicise asylum issues, and the question of European integration started to dominate Swiss political debates. They also adopted more confrontational methods. The Zürich-wing followingly started to gain ground in the party at the expense of the Bern-wing, and the party became increasingly centralised as a national party, in contrast to the traditional Swiss system of parties with loose organisational structures and weak central powers. During the 1990s, the party also doubled its number of cantonal branches (to eventually be represented in all cantons), which strengthened the power of the Zürich-wing since most new sections supported their agenda.
In 1991, the party for the first time became the strongest party in Zürich, with 20.2% of the vote. The party broke through in the early 1990s in both Zürich and Switzerland as a whole, and experienced dramatically increasing results in elections. From being the smallest of the four governing parties at the start of the 1990s, the party by the end of the decade emerged as the strongest party in Switzerland. At the same time, the party expanded its electoral base towards new voter demographics. The SVP in general won its best results in cantons where the cantonal branches adopted the agenda of the Zürich wing. In the 1999 federal election, the SVP for the first time became the strongest party in Switzerland with 22.5% of the vote, a 12.6% share increase. This was the biggest increase of votes for any party in the entire history of the Swiss proportional electoral system, which was introduced in 1919.
As a result of the remarkable increase in the SVP’s popularity, the party gained a second ministerial position in the Federal Council in 2003, which was taken by Christoph Blocher. Before this, the only SVP Federal Councillor had always been from the moderate Bern wing. The 2007 federal election still confirmed the SVP as the strongest party in Switzerland with 28.9% of the vote and 62 seats in the National Council, the largest share of the vote for any single party ever in Switzerland. However, the Federal Council refused to re-elect Blocher, who was replaced by Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf of the moderate Graubünden branch. In response, the national SVP withdrew its support from Widmer-Schlumpf and its other Federal Councillor, fellow SVP moderate Samuel Schmid, from the party, along with Widmer-Schlumpf’s whole cantonal section. The SVP thus formed the first opposition group in Switzerland since the 1950s.
In 2008, the SVP demanded that Widmer-Schlumpf resign from the Federal Council and leave the party. When she refused, the SVP demanded that its Grisons branch expel her. Since Swiss parties are legally federations of cantonal parties, the federal SVP could not expel her itself. The Grisons branch stood by Widmer-Schlumpf, leading the SVP to expel it from the party. Shortly afterward, the Grisons branch reorganised itself as the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP). Soon afterward, virtually all of the SVP’s Bern branch, including Schmid, defected to the new party. The SVP regained its position in government in late 2008, when Schmid was forced to resign due to a political scandal, and was replaced with Ueli Maurer.
The 2011 federal election put an end to the continuous progression of the SVP since 1987. The party drew 26.6% percent of the vote, a 2.3-point decrease from the previous elections in 2007. This loss could be partly attributed to the split of the BDP, which gained 5.4% of the vote in 2011. However the SVP rebounded strongly in the 2015 federal election, gathering a record 29.4% of the national vote and 65 seats in parliament. Media attributed the rise to concerns over the European migrant crisis.