July 24, 2021

The controversy swells after accusations of “dictatorship” in the management of the pandemic

This is what a dictatorship looks like: Belarusian police beat protesters marching in Minsk against President Alexander Lukashenko’s continued rule. Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

The SVP, Switzerland’s largest party, has accused the government for a few weeks of having turned into a “dictatorship” in its management of the pandemic. A rhetoric which may surprise readers abroad, but which can easily be explained by the political context. Analysis.

This content was published on March 03, 2021 – 2:30 PM

Unhappy with the measures taken by the Swiss government to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus, the Center Démocratique du Center (UDC, conservative right) has been at the front for a few weeks. The largest party in the country accuses the Federal Council, and more particularly the Socialist Minister of Health Alain Berset, of having dictatorial behavior.

This rhetoric is the Swiss equivalent of the assertion constantly repeated by Donald Trump: “the election was rigged”. These two statements are not based on any proven fact, but are part of political maneuvering.

In Switzerland, the objective of the SVP is to weaken the general functioning of government. And not only in its role of managing the pandemic, which has claimed almost 10,000 lives in the country.

Small step back: on March 16, 2020, the Federal Council qualifies the situation in Switzerland as “extraordinary” under the law on epidemics. This legislation can be activated in the event of a health crisis and gives the government full powers to impose measures intended to protect the population.

Time vs. Virus

As speed is a decisive factor in such a situation, the law allows the government to exceptionally make decisions without first submitting them to a vote in Parliament.

The term “dictatorship” appears very quickly in the UDC ranks: on April 9, 2020, the former party president and former federal councilor Christoph Blocher affirms on his website that this “incredible power” falls under “dictatorship”.

Ten months later, on February 12, 2021, Christoph Blocher specifically attacks the Socialist Minister (PS, left) of Health, Alain Berset, accusing him of being “a dictator”.

On the same day, the daughter of the former Federal Councilor and elected SVP to the Lower House of Parliament, Magdalena Martullo-Blocher, declared in an interview with the Zurich daily NZZ: “The Confederation has established a dictatorship and bypassed democracy” .

On February 24, 2021, it is the turn of the new SVP president Marco Chiesa, in office for six months, to take over. In the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, he accuses the Federal Council of exercising “autocracy” as part of its management of the pandemic and of governing “arbitrarily”. Whoever is also elected SVP to the upper house of Parliament also denounces a “dictatorship”.

Double-dealing

The party’s rhetoric aligns with that of its former mentor, Christoph Blocher, who still wields a major influence at over 80 years of age.

But do these attacks mean that the functioning of democracy in Switzerland is in danger?

No. The freedom of expression enjoyed by members of the SVP is proof of this.

Anyone who claims Switzerland is a dictatorship is downplaying real dictatorships, argued Center Party chairman Gerhard Pfister on Swiss German TV SRF.

Emergency state

Yes, the government gave itself full powers on March 16, 2020 by declaring a state of health emergency. Parliament and fundamental rights have been put on hold, including democratic participation.

This extraordinary situation is the most extreme case foreseen by Swiss democracy, because it implies the suspension of the mechanisms of control, the separation of powers, federalism as well as economic and assembly freedoms.

Two months of exceptional diet

However, the extraordinary situation imposed by the Federal Council lasted only two months. The government then decided on its own to relinquish full powers. Parliament was able to meet in May 2020, debate urgent decisions by the executive and anchor measures in common law.

Since then, the cantons and the two Federal Chambers have had their say. All the authorities have regained their place in the decision-making process, including with regard to the measures taken to combat the pandemic.

Is the law on epidemics a gateway to dictatorship?

Theoretically, yes. Because the government could decide to sustainably maintain the extraordinary situation and thus retain full powers.

However, the law on epidemics itself has been the subject of a democratic process: it was adopted by parliament in 2003, fought by referendum and then accepted by the people in 2013.

Instead of denouncing a “dictatorship”, the SVP could act at the level of Parliament to demand a revision of the law. Especially since the party has the largest parliamentary group in the lower house as well as two ministers out of the seven in the government.

Discussions on the proportionality of measures against the coronavirus must be distinguished from populist claims made without foundation: the former are part of the foundations of a healthy democracy while the latter threaten the very functioning of the democratic system.

Why is this accusation of “dictatorship” back on the agenda?

The timing is not a coincidence. Confidence in the government has eroded with the mismanagement of the second wave of the pandemic. In addition, the population is feeling a certain fatigue in the face of the restrictions in place to limit the spread of the virus. Criticism and acts of resistance are more frequent.

In mid-February, nearly 300,000 people signed petitions calling for the immediate reopening of shops and restaurants.

The country, which had gathered behind the Federal Council in the first wave, now seems deeply divided. The UDC wants to take advantage of this situation to rally voters who are skeptical of government action. And these are more and more numerous…

Should reproaches against a so-called “dictatorship” be taken seriously?

This controversy could have an impact, because the SVP is playing with fire: in a very heterogeneous Switzerland with 26 cantons and different cultures, citizens’ trust in institutions is the glue that unites the whole country.

In federal popular votes, which take place four times a year, the government’s position generally wins the support of citizens. But if defeats were to pile up at the ballot box, the country could become ungovernable. And Switzerland’s remarkable stability would then be threatened.