Change the Narrative: How a Swiss Group is Beating Right-Wing Populists

Illustration by  Eddie Stok

Illustration by Eddie Stok



How do you beat right-wing populists? With pink socks, viral videos, condoms—and an iron determination not to let them decide what matters.

That’s how Operation Libero is doing it anyway.

As advancing nationalist parties prepare to meet in Milan on Monday to forge an alliance in the run-up to May’s European elections, anti-populist activists in Switzerland may have some lessons on halting—even reversing—the seemingly unstoppable rise of right-wing populists.

It’s about the political space, who’s defining and shaping it, who’s communicating strategically within it, who, basically is holding it.


“It’s about the political space, who’s defining and shaping it, who’s communicating strategically within it, who, basically is holding it,” says Flavia Kleiner, 29, the group’s self-assured co-president, over tea in a Zurich bookshop and coffee house.

“At the moment, in lots of places, it’s populists. Everywhere, the conversation’s about identity: who we are, where we’re from, the past,” she laments. “But that’s their turf. We have to go on the offensive—clear the fog, refocus attention, reframe the debate.”

As the ground zero of postwar European populism, Switzerland is home to arguably Europe’s most consistently successful right-wing populist party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). For 25 years, the SVP had been steadily building its electoral success through a series of increasingly nation-first, anti-immigration popular referendums.

In February 2016, months after the SVP had scored its highest ever share of the vote, 29.4% in national elections, with the political mainstream seemingly helpless to halt its advance, Switzerland went to the polls again, this time for an SVP-sponsored referendum demanding the automatic deportation of immigrants found guilty of even minor offences.

Had the proposal passed, any of the country’s two million non-Swiss residents—a quarter of the population—caught, for example, speeding twice in any 10-year period, could have been automatically returned to their homeland, with judges barred from considering personal circumstances.

It didn’t pass.

Voters rejected it overwhelmingly by 59% to 41%, on a higher turnout—at nearly 64%—than for any popular referendum in years. “One moment we were talking about immigration and doing just fine,” the SVP’s leader said at the time. “The next, everyone was talking about rule of law. I don’t know what happened.”

What happened was Operation Libero. The movement had just chalked up the first in an unbroken series of victories over popular referendums pushed by the SVP. The latest, on giving Swiss law precedence over international law, was defeated in November last year by 66% to 34%.

In cantonal elections in Zurich last month, which are seen as a reliable indicator for October’s national elections, the biggest losers, by far, were the SVP, whose share of the vote plunged lower than at any time since 1995.

“The populists don’t know what’s hit them, and they really don’t know how to deal with it,” says Constantin Seibt, one of the country’s most respected journalists and editor-in-chief of Republik, a record-breaking, crowdfunded news startup.

“All they can manage is to bleat ‘It’s not fair. They’ve got all these young people, and somehow they keep turning everything we say against us’. Well, those young people have changed the dynamics of the country. The populists seem to be running out of steam. It’s pretty cool.”

Operation Libero was formed by a handful of mainly student friends soon after the “political earthquake” of 2014, when the SVP narrowly won a potentially crippling referendum to curb EU immigration. “We had to fight because we did not want to live in a country like this,” says Kleiner.

Also there at the beginning was communications director Silvan Gisler, 31, a former journalist. “It was just, ‘Fuck, this really has just happened,’” he says in the group’s offices, which are based in a slightly scruffy office block around the corner from Zurich’s red light district. “And had everyone done enough to stop it? No.”

Operation Libero was a working title, but it “kind of stuck,” Gisler said. “You know, in football there used to be a player called the ‘libero’—the last defender, but also the one who gives the first pass to the attack. And ‘operation’ conveyed urgency. We are a movement, not a party. But above all, we’re about values and action.”

From the outset, the group adopted a radically different approach. Its first, modest campaign was in late 2014, against another popular referendum, Ecopop, which envisaged “limiting the population to a level compatible with the preservation of the country’s natural resources”—notably, of course, by restricting immigration.

Helped by small-scale crowdfunding, the group launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign. An army of young volunteers handed amused nightclubbers condoms in bright pink packaging, commanding them to “prevent disaster: have sex against Ecopop.”

Soon after, it launched a campaign for same-sex marriage, which it is still pursuing (“It’s vital that we’re not just reactive. That we say what we’re really for, not just what we’re against,” says Gisler) with viral social media videos featuring cute same-sex couples on ski-lifts in wedding gear telling passersby they are “unhappily unmarried.”

The breakthrough, though, came that day in February 2016. “It was clear that if we talked about criminal foreigners, we’d become the defenders of criminal foreigners,” says Kleiner. “We’d have lost before we started.”

“Instead, we set the terms of the debate by portraying the SVP’s proposal as an attack against fundamental Swiss values,” he continues. “Against the constitution as a pillar of our liberal democracy; the rule of law; equal justice for all. We were the patriots here, because this was an attack on things that every Swiss citizen holds dear.”

She first thought they might win, Kleiner says, the day she heard two women talking about the upcoming referendum in a shop. “One said, ‘Can you imagine? It would mean a family man, a father, being deported, just like that, for driving a bit too fast.’ And the other said, `I wouldn’t want that happening to me. It’s not right.’”

Success brought money and the means to do more. Operation Libero has about 1,500 members paying a CHF50-100 (£38-£76) annual subscription; 10,000 donors, mostly giving sums less than CHF250; 5,000 volunteers on call, and four regional sections. It employs seven part-time staff and is organized to a degree that is positively, well, Swiss.

The office is all charts and whiteboards, with six campaigns—some, still secret—mapped across weekly timelines. Post-it notes and to-do lists cover walls and desks. At clockwork-smooth, morning meetings plans are discussed, projects refined, ideas floated, timings decided, messages polished, responsibilities allocated.


This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue

This Is Not An Elections Issue
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