In Europe as well as the United States the political arena has shifted to the fringes. Measured, moderate stands on issues of national and international importance are zapped by high-voltage soundbites, obliterated by incendiary one-liners.
Anger is the coveted political currency of the moment—anger fueled by fear of foreigners, by fears for the future—anger fueled by populist politicians at home and abroad. And even little Switzerland, the Continent’s hoary paradigm of democracy, has not been immune.
Until this year, in fact, it seemed all but certain that the right-wing populists of the SVP (the Schweizer Volkspartei) would push through a referendum calling for the expulsion of “immigrants,” even second or third generation Swiss born, if they were found guilty of a legal offense as minor as two parking tickets.
(Donald Trump has made essentially the same idea part of his 10-point immigration plan: “Zero tolerance for criminal aliens,” he proclaims. “We will issue detainers for all illegal immigrants who are arrested for any crime whatsoever, and they will be placed into immediate removal proceedings.”)
But in Switzerland, the SVP populists found themselves up against a new grass roots movement, Operation Libero, that seemed to come from nowhere. The SVP referendum lost badly, and all of a sudden all eyes turned to a political newcomer—26-year-old driven, committed, and comely Flavia Kleiner, the movement’s co-president.
“Liberalism was highjacked by radicals,” she says, meaning the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill. “Operation Libero is all about a new vision and a new story.”
In the months since the referendum, Kleiner has become the new face of what might be called progressive moderation. Under her leadership, previously unengaged Swiss voters have found their voices and are mobilized.
Like many young people elswhere in Europe and in the U.S., Kleiner watched in consternation as the tired old guard, the traditional politicians, were put on the defensive and pushed steadily in a corner by aggressive populists with their message of anger and fear.
But rather than surrender to easy cynicism and apathy, Kleiner and a few friends started a political movment based on principles that most people in the West once took for granted: a liberalism, in the classic sense, that “means freedom, rights for the individual, democracy and the separation of powers.”
A year ago, the SVP looked like it was unstoppable. In national elections it won a landslide by the standards of the country’s multiparty system, raking in almost 30 percent of the votes.
“The atmosphere in Switzerland has been dominated by the populist SVP minority,” says Kleiner, who believes that the 70 percent of Swiss who did not vote for them think quite differently. “Operation Libero wanted to let that majority speak,” Kleiner says. In 2014 the movement made its debut with the slogan calling for Switzerland to be, “A land of opportunities, not an open air museum.”
Then in February the new Swiss law calling for the expulsion of immigrants was coming up for approval by referendum. The question was framed by the SVP party as a vote for or against ousting criminal foreigners.
“I thought I’d lose to them,” Kleiner told The Daily Beast. “Because whatever you say in that context, you come across as a defender of criminal foreigners.”
Issues on immigrants or foreigners has always been the SVP’s core business, so Operation Libero had to reframe the subject.
“We said; with this referendum the SVP is undermining the foundations of our democracy and the rule of law, our human rights and fundamental achievements.
“It isn’t just the populists who frame immigration as a problem. The left does, the liberals do, everyone does,” said Kleiner. “We wanted to develop another discourse. One that is progressive and looking ahead and saying that we are looking forward to the year 2050. Whereas everyone else is saying, ‘It was better the way it was before and we should stick to what we know, etc.’”
The message seems to have worked. Operation Libero gained an unexpected and overwhelming win, defeating the referendum by 58.9 percent.
But it’s likely a positive outlook alone would not have been enough to bring Operation Libero such a stunning success. Kleiner’s charismatic leadership certainly helped. A lot of politicians talk about idealism, but Kleiner fairly exudes it at a time when many voters have lost faith in the motives of the political establishment. She is seen to lead, as one local newspaper put it, “a rebellion of the decent.”
Operation Libero treads outside the familiar corridors of political power and the lobbies of special interests, in part, by stying itself a movement rather than a party. It is, as one might expect, very active on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The movement believes it can exert more influence by remaining on the outside this way, and it aims to attract “the decent” in parliament, whether they are from the left or the right. Indeed, as Kleiner notes, “The current president of Swiss parliament Christa Markwalder is a member.”
Operation Libero’s strength lies in two distinct demographics. One group is aged 20 to 40, educated, with a progressive world view—people who felt thay had no home in Swiss politics anymore. The second group is relatively elderly, members aged 60 to 80. For them, the movement renews hope in the values they fought for in the past.
Operation Libero has a well thought through strategy that cuts across the traditional party divides. “It’s interesting to see how much we agree with the SVP on some points.” Kleiner says. “On some of the fundamentals of democracy. But on individual freedom and constitutional rights we think very differently.”
Operation Libero promotes progressive policies while carefully respecting tranditional Swiss values. It embraces patriotism and rejects populism at the same time.
But this is not only a battle of ideals, tactical thinking is an integral part of its approach.
“The SVP uses a lot of easy, catchy one liners,” says Kleiner. “Populism needs that. It’s like a drug, you know.” The movement had to be pragmatic to reach the front page. “To get there you need one picture and five words. You can make phrases catchier without losing substance. Make it easy to understand. You have to be smart in your political communication. The way you communicate is as important as the message.”
And then, as Kleiner puts it, “We have to be fearless.”
“People are intimidated by populist parties like the SVP and believe being a patriot means being a populist,” she says. One sees that “too often [patriotism] is left to the right wing populists, because they scream the loudest. They cause more problems than they solve.”
Operation Libero is finding a way back to what it calls “our liberal achievements.”
“The president of the SVP is like the bully in the schoolyard, always beating up the smaller kids. And then, when they need coalition partners they complain nobody wants to hold their hand during the school trip,” says Kleiner.
The Swiss press calls her “the nightmare of the populists,” but she may turn out to be the hope of true Swiss liberalism.