Misinformation has been a recurring feature in the battle for votes on highly charged issues like naturalisation and tax reforms, landing some campaigners in hot water.
Looking at the most-talked about image of the current campaign, a Swiss voter might be inclined to think Muslim immigrants would be the main beneficiaries of a proposal to ease citizenship procedures for so-called third-generation foreigners. That seems to be the message of a poster, launched by a committee opposed to the initiative, featuring a woman in a burka and the phrase, “Uncontrolled naturalisation?”
The poster been roundly criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of reality. It's just one of several examples of Swiss politicians creating their own “alternative facts” – a phrase used by an adviser to US President Donald Trump to dispute audience size at his inauguration – ahead of nationwide polls set for 12 February on naturalisation and other hot-button issues.
One burka too many
Soon after the poster was launched, news outlets and social media users wasted no time checking the facts. They pointed to a study commissioned by the State Secretariat for Migration, which found that 58% of people eligible for the facilitated procedure – chiefly the grand-children of immigrants – are Italian.
But the campaigners have staunchly defended their approach. Although the Swiss People’s Party says it’s not responsible for the poster, its members sit on the committee opposing the proposal. The poster follows a well-oiled strategy to form simple, populist campaign narratives that have helped the People’s Party to win votes since the 1990s. These narratives often play on fears about future threats to Swiss identity and social cohesion.
One People’s Party parliamentarian summed up the latest message at a campaign stop.
“This poster is simply stating that, one day, the people concerned – the large cohorts – will no longer be the Italians, but they might potentially be people like this,” said Jean-Luc Addor, his finger on the burka poster, in a clip that aired on French-language Swiss public television (RTS).
The study estimated a total of 24,655 people would be eligible for the procedure today, though experts believe only a small proportion would apply for citizenship. As others have noted, the only Muslim-majority countries among the main nationalities concerned are Turkey (9%) – from which immigration to Switzerland has been in steady decline for the past decade – and Kosovo (3.9%). In neither country is wearing the burka a prevalent custom. If the proposal is approved, the number of Muslims applying for facilitated naturalisation would be modest at best.
But some People’s Party politicians have gone further, suggesting jihadists could well gain citizenship. The youth arm of the People’s Party in canton Schwyz has even put this claim in poster form. Yet supporting a terrorist group or other criminal organisation is actually unlawful in Switzerland, and eligibility for citizenship includes respecting the law and not posing a threat to national or international security. Last year the Federal Criminal Court even upheld a decision by the authorities to confiscate the Swiss passport of an alleged jihadist with dual nationality.
In a separate campaign flyer, the People’s Party – the only major party to oppose the citizenship initiative – has pushed another claim: that Switzerland naturalises more residents than neighbouring countries. The flyer shows a graphic that omits among others Luxembourg which, according to Eurostat figures, issues more passports per total number of inhabitants than any other European country.
Distorting images and words has landed another group of campaigners in hot water. The Swiss Federation of Small and Medium Enterprises released a flyer that portrays five politicians from the left who oppose new corporate tax reforms as being supporters of the proposed changes.
Green Party member Antonio Hodgers told freesheet 20Minutes that the umbrella organisation for SMEs had misrepresented quotes he had previously given to the press. While he supported cantonal tax reform plans, he said, he was firmly against changes being proposed at the federal level, on which voters will have their say this month. Hodgers also posted a message on Facebook to reiterate the story was false, stating his wish was to “restore the truth”.
“In order to eliminate all doubt, I repeat that none of us – Sandrine Salerno, Pascale Bruderer, Claude Janiak, Hans Stöckli and I – support the federal tax reform,” he wrote on the social platform. “Quite the opposite: we reject it whole-heartedly.”
Hodgers and Salerno had called on the SME lobby group to withdraw the flyer, which was distributed to Swiss households and posted online. But the director of the SME associaiton, a parliamentarian with the centre-right Radical Party, was unmoved, telling 20Minutes his organisation had simply reproduced Salerno’s statements “word for word”.
The association has also been accused of photoshopping an image of Social Democratic Party politicians, who are shown in the same flyer holding a banner that reads, “Jobs? Who cares!” next to a story claiming the socialists were trying to destroy jobs by opposing the tax reform. The photo was taken last autumn, as the group submitted their call for a referendum on the issue. The original words on their banner were “No to the tax reform”.
One politician targeted in the story called the tactic “unacceptable”. The Social Democratic Party later filed a complaint in a Basel court. Following the judge’s ruling to stop using the altered image, the association was finally forced to remove the flyer from its website.
“Now they must really stop their campaign of lies,” one Social Democratic parliamentarian told the tabloid Blick.