The Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, SVP) has been one of the most successful radical right populist parties in Western Europe since the 1990s.
De facto leader Christoph Blocher, with his political allies in the influential Zurich Wing, has developed the SVP’s organizational structure for greater centralisation and internal coherence on ideology.
But despite the party’s electoral gains and mobilization of its members, the extent to which national leaders can concentrate power vis-à-vis the party’s cantonal branches is a matter of conflict. Recent internal developments and structural changes seem to have accentuated disagreements between the national party and regional branches over organization and program.
My interviews with SVP representatives from Zurich, Bern, and Geneva [Hyperlink to forthcoming PiAP Special Issue article] point to key areas which need to be addressed by the national leadership to avoid alienation of cantonal branches and negative effects on recruitment and mobilization of members.
Building the Mass Party
Cantonal and local branches are instrumental in guaranteeing the SVP’s roots in localities. The branches, ensuring direct links between the party and its members, are the best way of attracting supporters. Relying predominantly on social activities and personal communication, branches mobilize voters by offering them a clear message, as well as the opportunity to become part of a community of people sharing the same ideas and values.
Active members are important for electoral success, especially for distributing the party’s message and arguments within their areas. However, this requires the identification of the members with the party’s ideology, core issues. and the Lebenswelt (life world) of party supporters.
Existing core topics, such as restriction of immigration, independence from EU influence, and strengthening of the middle class have been effective in mobilising the party’s existing base and to strengthen cohesion within it. Nevertheless, many SVP representatives claim that the party lacks focus on topics that matter locally, such as health care and child support. They argue that this has hampered further growth of the membership base.
In recent years, the SVP has increasingly centralized power in the national leadership, with more responsibilities having been handed over to its Central Committee. Electorally successful cantonal branches were granted more delegates to the National Delegate Assembly, and a newly created Party Executive Committee.
Cantonal branches still possess organizational autonomy but not all are equally influential. Instead, the national party leadership and representatives from larger cantonal branches establishes certain matters such as the strategic planning and ideological direction of the party. Smaller cantonal branches and Delegate Assemblies have a rather limited influence on preliminary decision-making processes over strategy and program.
A centralized national organization and the provision of a clearly articulated ideology has enabled the SVP to attract members and mobilize activists. However, further centralization of decision-making may erode the ties between the national leadership and cantonal branches.
The further growth of the SVP depends on the national leadership investing in its roots on the ground, the development of mechanisms, which encourage the involvement of branches, and a broadening of its core topics to engage members.