As the Banks Crumble: A Look at the Left in Switzerland

If the left draws the majority of its support from those at the lower rungs of the economic pecking pole – organized labor, civil servants, and the working poor – how then in Switzerland, one of the wealthiest countries, with some of the lowest poverty and unemployment rates in the post-industrialized world, does the left ever make it to public office? How on the turf of banking goliaths Credit Suisse and United Bank of Switzerland does the left not get laughed out of town?

After a closer examination, the left in Switzerland proves that even with a mild inferiority complex, divisions, and an elephantine opponent, their politics could be more relevant than ever.

Visiting the Zurich headquarters of the Swiss Communist Party is sort of like stumbling into a crime scene. Papers, pamphlets and posters burst forth from every drawer. Books collect beneath the tables and desks like dust. Manifestos are strewn across the walls. Though the Swiss government outlawed the Communist Party in 1941, it has been operating as the same organization under the name Partei Der Arbeit or the Workers Party since 1944.

"The Swiss are fundamentally conservative," says Siro Torresan, the chain-smoking Secretary of the Zurich branch of the Communist Party. "It’s like they like to build walls around themselves."

In fact Switzerland, a nation of seven million with four main linguistic communities – German, French, Italian and Rumantsch speakers – is infamous for its isolationism. It remained neutral through both World Wars. It waited until 2002 to join the United Nations and has not joined the European Union. The sovereignty of her banks irks even bedfellows like the United States.

It’s a crackpot theory to be certain, but perhaps in the West, the strength of a given country’s Communist Party speaks to the extent of its political conservatism. By this logic, Switzerland squats pretty far to the right. The facts agree. According to Torresan, there are only 2,000 card-carrying members in the whole country, less than 100 in Zurich. In the 2007 elections, they received less than 1 percent of the vote. One lonely communist clings to a seat in the 200 member Swiss House of Representatives.

Though far-left muscle has been going flabby across Europe for decades, compared to their flamboyant comrades in France or Italy, the Swiss Reds look especially tame. Even in the financial mammoth London, former mayor "Red" Ken Livingstone ruled until recently and progressives continue to exert much influence there. Yet, while the Social Democrats, a natural ally, dominate Zurich proper, a postage stamp of a city with only 370,000 inhabitants, and are the second largest party in Switzerland, Torresan claims that the center-left plays bully in the political playground.

"The role of the mainstream left is to exclude the extreme left," he says with a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug.

While some may pointedly argue that the decline of communist popularity can only be blamed on communists – Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot to name a few – others highlight the political system as what minimizes those with views like Mr. Torresan.

Dr. Jakob Tanner, a professor of Contemporary History at Zurich University, explains that Switzerland’s system of consensus – where the representatives of the top four parties sit on a seven member council and act as the equivalent of the American executive branch – lends itself to moderation.

"Swiss politics are very non-confrontational," he says.

The consensus system, where the council must come to a unanimous decision, effectively eliminates the opposition as all the major players sit at the same table and decide on legislation together.

"They always try to bring outsiders into the system," adds Dr. Tanner.

Though Mr. Torresan, the Communist Party Secretary, who works part-time as a councilor for at-risk youth, admits that his fellow Marxists, Leninist, and Trotskyites will never make substantial gains through the ballot box, he believes the party still has an important role to play.

"We try to push the Social Democrats further to the left," he says.

Programs such as suffrage for foreigners, the opening of a free cultural center for immigrants, and providing foreign students with the same rights and opportunities as locals are just some of the plans Mr. Torresan, who himself is the child of Italian immigrants, and the Communist Party hopes to realize with the help of their bulkier political brother, the Social Democrats.

For the Swiss left, the emphasis on integrating non-Swiss, who make up a quarter of the work force and about 20 percent of the population, is no coincidence.

The rise of the ultra-nationalist right wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has shattered the once stable political dynamics by winning nearly 29% of the vote in the 2007 elections, cementing its title as the undisputed heavy weight of Swiss politics. Led by billionaire Christoph Blocher, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric often teeters on the brink of blatant racism, the SVP runs on a law and order, anti-European Union, anti-foreigner platform and draws upon a diverse constituency: from ultra-wealthy elites to poor rural farmers.

"The lower classes now vote for the far-right," says Bianca Rousselot of the Institute of Swiss Politics.

This represents a missed opportunity for Switzerland’s left, especially the Social Democrats, whose platform – progressive taxation and stronger social security – reflect the interests of voters struggling economically. Yet those voting for the SVP are likely rural and culturally conservative, people who would never have voted left anyway.

Still, the Swiss do not seem to take missed opportunities lightly.

In what many see as a ploy to attract conservatives, the Social Democrats published an October policy paper in favor of expelling foreigners who commit serious crimes and in support of surveillance cameras in public spaces, more police patrols, and buffer border security – a bouleversement of their past stance on the issues.

Though the Social Democrats should and must broaden its tent, especially in light of losses in the past two elections, it is not as if disgruntled lefties defected to Blocher’s SVP.

"Social Democrats have been losing voters to the Green Party," says Mrs. Roussolet. "They have competition in their own camp."

With environmentalism and fears of global warming gaining steam, the Greens are blossoming. In the 2007 elections, they gained six seats in the National Council, jumping from 14 to 20 seats. They won their first seat in the 46-member senate. At this point, nearly 10 percent of the Swiss vote Green. Moreover, in a country that did not extend suffrage to women until 1971, the Green Party is miles ahead on gender parity. Its president is a women and of the 20 parliamentarians, half are women.

Despite the rampant fractioning within the left, almost all agree that with global finances crumbling, now is the time to reassert themselves. After decades of Wild West economic dominance, traditional policies such as regulation, stronger welfare and government intervention could finally gain some popularity.

Indeed, Switzerland’s famed financial sector has been hurting. In early October, the BBC reported that UBS (the United Bank of Switzerland) had planned to cut 2,000 jobs. Not but two weeks later the Swiss government coughed up over $6 billion to bail out UBS. Credit Suisse, the other banking brute, suffered about $8 billion in losses.

"It’s not acceptable that while the government pays 6 billion into UBS, that UBS plans to pay 7 billion as bonuses to its executives," declared Stefan Hostettler, the Social Democrat’s economics and finance secretary in an interview with World Radio Switzerland. "Those who made millions and made this mess should be punished."

As recently as November 15, thousands took to the streets of Zurich to protest the bailout.

While the Social Democrats are unable to shape the government’s response to their every whim, it seems that maybe voters will at the least give them a second listen.

"Five years ago everyone trusted the banks. They trusted the system and the financial sector," says Dr. Tanner, the Social Historian. "But now with the crisis, people are seeing that the Social Democrats have good ideas, too."

One issue currently on the table is the state funded pension system. A November 30 referendum will decide – among other things – whether to allow workers earning less than $103,400 a year to collect benefits starting at age 62.

"Flexible retirement must no longer be the privilege of high income earners," said Paul Rechsteiner, president of the Trade Union Federation in an interview with the English news site Swiss Info.

Introduced by the Social Democrats and the Greens, the bill is derided by the business friendly, center-right Radical Party as being financially unsustainable. Nevertheless, recent polls pegged support at roughly 52%.

Another hotspot is income tax. Many cantons – Switzerland’s version of states – are adopting flat tax rates in an effort to attract wealthier residents.

The Social Democrats have burst out brawling, terming the flat tax, "a race to the bottom." Communist congressman Josef Zysiadis, in an interview with Swiss Info, put it more bluntly.

"It’s the return to the Middle Ages in the social organization of society. The richer you are, the less you contribute to the community."

In the end, Switzerland will likely never usher in a period total progressive dominance. They are a moderate country, with a population that traditionally distrusts big government. Polls consistently show 80-90 percent of the population saying no to a bigger role. Yet with global finances in a nosedive and their tolerant self-image of in question, the Swiss left should savor its moment in the limelight.