The Swiss People’s Party, known as SVP (or UDC in French), is an extreme right-wing, nationalist organization which opposes immigration and its country’s recent entry into the Schengen agreement, a shared European free-travel zone.

The party made worldwide headlines in the run-up to the 2007 national election with its infamous black sheep ad, which featured an illustration of three white sheep standing on a Swiss flag, one of which is kicking a single black sheep across a line. The ad, which reads “for increasing security,” had blatant racist undertones and promoted a party that wants strict border controls and mass deportations of foreigners.

But the SVP is not some fringe group of isolated racists. In that 2007 election, the party scored 28.9 per cent of the popular vote, making it the single largest party on Switzerland’s National Council.

The black sheep ad is back, now with an even more blatant message.

In late November the party convinced a majority of Swiss voters to approve a constitutional plebiscite requiring the automatic deportation of foreigners convicted of serious crimes or profiting from fraud.

The advertisement featured a redesigned black sheep ad, next to one of four concocted examples of criminals with foreign-sounding names. Igor is a rapist. Ismir is a fraudster. Maurice is a paedophile. Faruk is a murderer.
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The ads were plastered on billboards throughout Switzerland, advertised in newspapers, and mailed to households across the country.

This isn’t the first time the party used emotive imagery to get its referenda passed.

In November 2009, the SVP successfully campaigned for a ban on the construction of minarets. The country was flooded with an illustration featuring minarets tearing through a Swiss flag while a black niqab-clad woman hatefully glared at the viewer.

The SVP has published other offensive ads. One against naturalization features hands of varying skin tones prying into a tray of Swiss passports. Another features menacing black crows standing over the shape of Switzerland’s borders.

Illustrations of immigrants as conniving animals are not that different from Nazi posters depicting Jews as rats.

Over the past two decades, the party has risen from nine per cent support and is expecting to surpass 30 per cent in the coming federal election this October. With few parties ever reaching 25 per cent support, the rise of the SVP has many outsiders concerned about the rise in xenophobia.

Compared to its European peers, the country has only suffered mildly from the recent global recession. Little of the continent’s sovereign debt crisis affects the non-EU state.

About one-fifth of the country’s residents do not have citizenship, and a third of the population is of non-Swiss origin. Though these numbers are higher than in neighbouring countries, Switzerland is arguably the hardest European country to obtain citizenship from, requiring 12 years of residence and interviews with neighbours.

Although the country welcomes asylum seekers and refugees, they make up less than two per cent of the country’s population of 7.7 million. In a country with cosmopolitan cities and influential banks, many immigrants are skilled financial and hospitality workers from financially stable countries.

A country with three dominant linguistic and cultural groups, the Swiss Confederation has managed to form a solid national identity since its establishment in 1848. Unlike federal confederations like Belgium or Canada, independence movements in Switzerland are nearly unheard of.

The Swiss can easily think of symbols that define the country as a nation: banks, fondue, watches, chocolate, Alps, emmental, trains, cow bells, yodelling, army knives, and St. Bernard rescue dogs, to name a few.

Hardly any of these symbols are used in SVP advertising. Instead of appealing to national pride, the party is working to inspire fear in its citizens, making them vote using emotion instead of reason.

While the recent proposal on mandatory deportation of criminals could be blamed on a higher conviction rate among foreigners, there is little evidence that the correlation also applies to serious crime. The ballot contained an alternative proposal that would have offered judges discretionary power.

The 2009 minaret ban also made little sense. Muslims only make up five per cent of the Swiss population, and most come from Turkey and Balkan countries, areas with relatively liberal forms of Islam where niqab wearing is uncommon. Prior to the ban, the whole country only had six mosques, four of which had minarets.

SVP has used emotional propaganda to advance its political objectives. Using ads unimaginable in Canada, it creates an “other” out of foreigners, making Swiss citizens fear and mistrust a large number of the people they encounter every day.

The party’s rise is reminiscent of the fascism of the 1930s, when multiple European states urged citizens to cling to their national identity with a fervour that resembled or even incorporated religion. Dictators ruled, regular people reported their neighbours for thought crimes, and genocide was committed on a terrifying scale. One hopes the Swiss, and European voters as a whole, turn to a more rational political discourse in the coming months and years.