“In the past, for a vote we had to start six months early, do a poll and decide: ‘These are the three messages we want to get across.’ We made posters, advertisements and launched the campaign. Today nobody does that! We are evolving into a permanent laboratory.”
In an interview given at the end of January to Time, Roman Geiser, boss of the Zurich bureau Farner, referred to decades past. A time when employers and the Federal Council decided what was right for the Swiss people. More often than not, the majority of voters obediently followed the voting instructions intended to enhance the competitiveness and attractiveness of the Standort Switzerland (the Swiss economic place).
The votes of 13 February reminded us: the citizen has become much more unpredictable. The Swiss thumb up, intended to encourage the abolition of stamp duty, did not catch on. The object was swept by 62.7% of voters. A slap in the face for Economiesuisse and the other economic organizations that had mobilized to torpedo this 1% levy on the raised capital of more than 1 million francs.
Defeat also for the same players in the initiative against tobacco advertising aimed at young people. Even the people of Neuchâtel have accepted it, despite the presence on their land of the international group Philip Morris, one of the most important workplaces in the canton.
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Prosperity as the main “enemy”?
The main stakeholders are the first to note that economic objects no longer go to the post office like a letter: “Maintaining jobs and strengthening SMEs is no longer enough, it is,” noted Valentin Vogt, president of the Swiss Employers’ union, in various German-language media. And to explain: “It is interesting to note that this evolution parallels our prosperity. After entering an economic slump in the mid-1990s, with high unemployment, we survived more or less all the crises for 20 years. The biggest enemy of change is when things go right. Voters clearly feel that nothing can happen to us and that our prosperity is fundamentally due to us.”
Among the observers of Swiss political life, no one denies that what some call the “Swiss miracle” plays a role in the rift that has developed between the population and the economic elite.
For in the past, the story was well established: “From 1848 and the birth of modern Switzerland, historian Laurent Tissot recalls, boundary conditions were seen as a strategic and political resource that enabled Switzerland to compete with the world’s largest economies. mantra according to which Switzerland has a “immersiona state of exception”. “Allowing him to take measures that were difficult for neighboring countries to accept because otherwise we thought we were done!”
A shocked fortress
With the rise in living standards and awareness of ethical and environmental issues, these arguments no longer arouse the same support. But for the Waldensian historian Matthieu Leimgruber, other factors come into play, starting with parliament, which plays a much more important role in political life.
There are also employer organizations that are much less organized: “Today, employer circles seem very structured, but in the past their internal discipline was much greater. The situations in which some of the employers were suddenly left alone did not exist. And to mention the split of the umbrella organization of health insurers into two competing federations [en 2014, ndlr]† An unimaginable event, between the 1920s and the 1980s, because during this period “such dissonances were discussed internally. They were not played in the public square. That makes decision-making more uncertain.”
End of the glorious 1930s, dissolution of the Swiss Trade and Industry Union (USCI), refusal to join the European Economic Area in 1992… Can we mark with a white cross the moment when the tacit contract that seems to have been established between citizens, authorities and economic circles?
We still don’t know what to do with the UDC in employers’ organizations
“We still don’t know what to do with the UDC in employer organizations. Structural transformations of the economy from the 1970s have preferred a reconfiguration of the Swiss employer landscape,” replies Matthieu Leimgruber, associate professor at the University of Zurich. Moreover, a certain Christoph Blocher and other personalities demanding a turn to the right will emerge in response to the globalization and the social changes that were born in May 68. Thirty years later we still don’t know what to do with the UDC in the employers’ organizations”.
However, the country’s first party pushed for the head of the Swiss Union of Arts and Crafts (USAM), which today represents more the interests of companies focused on the internal market, while Economiesuisse, born in 2000 from the merger of the USCI and the SDES (the Society for the Economic Development of Switzerland), it is seen as the spokesperson for the multinationals. The regular disagreements between these two entities fuel what researchers André Mach, Thomas David and Stéphanie Ginalski describe as noisy politics (noisy politics) as opposed to the silent politics (the silent policy) that prevailed until the 1980s.
The Excesses of the 2000s
If the worm got into the fruit much earlier, the turn of the century will contribute to its rotting: “There is a certain mistrust of economic circles, especially the big bosses since the early 2000s and the wage disclosures leading to people’s adoption of the Responsible Business Initiative in 2020 [c’est la non–majorité des cantons qui fera échouer le texte, ndlr]’, observes political scientist André Mach. Without forgetting, Matthieu Leimgruber adds, that “the bosses don’t always come from Switzerland anymore. Some of them do not always understand the codes of Swiss politics, or are not even interested in them. Some even wonder what the employers’ organizations are for.
This development confuses even more the messages of economic circles, which no longer necessarily have the same interests: “The Swiss economic fabric is very diversified, André Mach recalls. Until now, the strength of the economy has been to speak with one voice. Now we see more cracks. There are more divisions between large companies and SMEs or finance and industry.”
For example, throwing the world into recession, the great financial crisis of 2008 will split the economy in two: on the one hand, that which is considered “real”, on the other, finance and its excesses. The adoption in 2013 by a large majority of the initiative of the small entrepreneur Thomas Minder, fueled by the high salaries of the large business leaders, is one of the consequences. It was also made possible by revelations a few weeks before the deadline, the golden parachute to hit Novartis boss Daniel Vasella. A year later, the People’s Sovereign said yes to the “Against Mass Immigration” initiative, supported by the SVP and opposed by some economic organizations.
Need new software
Almost ten years after the adoption of these brakes, the Swiss economy does not appear to be doing much worse. If the covid pandemic has weakened it for a while, nothing seems to really shake its appeal. It also remains at the top of the rankings that assess countries’ competitiveness, perhaps giving the population a sense of invulnerability.
Economist Stéphane Garelli nevertheless points to a red line: “There is one thing that is essential for Switzerland, and that is to continue to have access to markets. If we are cut off from the markets, the Swiss economy will collapse.” What a reminder that institutional relations between Bern and Brussels have stalled. A file that Economiesuisse has just committed to, but about which the economic organizations are far from in agreement.
Let’s all be right, historians and political scientists conclude in unison: Switzerland remains a liberal state and the left wins mostly defensive battles, such as the one over pension reforms, André Mach recalls. As the polls get tighter, the wins harder to come by, not all votes turn except to the dismay of employers’ circles. A year ago they were the ones who took a free trade deal with Indonesia from the people when the game was far from over.