Lessons from Fighting Swiss Right-Wing Populism: Flavia Kleiner and Operation Libero

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In early 2016, Operation Libero, an anti-populist movement cofounded by history student Flavia Kleiner, 26, successfully defeated an anti-immigrant Swiss ballot initiative. The “enforcement” initiative, sponsored by the nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), would have ordered the deportation of immigrants in Switzerland for any criminal offense, no matter how minor. Often, initiative sponsors like the SVP frame such issues in terms of Swiss values and innocuous outcomes for citizens to control the narrative and reduce the potential for negative response. In this case, the SVP initiative followed a long and bruising federal election, and their usual political opponents were exhausted and out of funds to fight the initiative. So Kleiner and friends built a grassroots movement and coalition for “No” on the enforcement initiative to re-frame the issue, reclaim Swiss values, and drive attention to the anti-immigrant initiative. The successful effort has since blossomed into a suite of campaigns under Operation Libero to oppose populist and illiberal rhetoric more broadly.

At the beginning, rather than starting with the big Swiss newspapers of record, Kleiner gave her first interviews criticizing the enforcement initiative to the free daily newspapers distributed around public transportation and read widely by average citizens. By being one of the only smart, vocal critics reaching out to the press, she was able to get front page news in these journals.

Operation Libero also took to the internet to generate easy ways to engage in the campaign and share relevant information across social networks. They aggressively fact-checked claims by the SVP about the initiative and their country’s need for it. They created press releases debunking the claims and made it easy for journalists to write critical stories. Operation Libero also designed compelling and humorous visual memes that could be easily used as Facebook profile images or shared, mocking the SVP’s own imagery.

Operation Libero’s reframing of the issue—defending the rights of immigrants was equivalent to defending core Swiss values—was widely distributed online and offline and overwhelmed the SVP, which had not expected such opposition. A key indicator of success was the fact that SVP paid handsomely for leaflets delivered to every Swiss home that tried to make an argument for the initiative. Kleiner says the expensive measure was an act of desperation, and the misleading claims in the leaflets were quickly debunked by Operation Libero and sympathetic journalists.

Kleiner has made a set of careful and deliberate decisions about how to structure and present Operation Libero. They are a nonprofit and are not aligned with any particular political party. In interviews, she has been careful not to favor a particular party, while still representing her commitment to Swiss liberalism. As a result, MPs from several parties are “members” of the movement. Kleiner is frank that her own background and personal appearance also helps her cause. She is from a self-described bourgeois, rural Swiss-German family, and has a stereotypical blonde-haired Swiss look—she looks native to her home district, which votes heavily for SVP. Her heritage and dress signals a possible affinity with conservative lawmakers, aiding her in presenting as politically centrist and making her case directly to lawmakers.

Operation Libero has supporters from the Left in Switzerland, but they are not building formal coalitions in their movement and avoid affiliation with disruptive politics or a broader radical agenda. Instead, Kleiner says that their appeal is always in terms of traditional Swiss values, which seeks to marginalize the SVP and its nationalist rhetoric as anti-Swiss. This helps them connect with average citizens and own the language of the debate.

Now that Kleiner is seen as a political threat by the SVP, the party and its online supporters have started attacking her personally. With additional nationalist ballot initiatives coming up over the next year or so, she will have to deflect negative associations imposed by the other side and Operation Libero will need to find new, innovative ways to campaign. It will be a test of their model for an anti-nationalist movement. They expect the SVP will be more prepared and the types of memes and media campaigns they used before might have diminishing returns this time around. A danger for Operation Libero, as for all innovative movements, is that the best weapon in political campaigning is surprise, which is very difficult to reproduce.

Beyond Switzerland, Kleiner has been approached by organizers in other European countries struggling to fight the rise of nationalist parties and policies. When she met with us at the MIT Center for Civic Media, she was in the United States on a State Department tour for female political leaders and meeting with American academics and political organizers. It’s unclear if Operation Libero’s values-driven, centrist approach could work outside of Switzerland. In the United States, the radical Left is visibly leading the resistance against nationalistic policies under President Trump. Kleiner’s analysis is that the identity politics of American progressives sometimes get in the way of their own strategies—and they should make sure to be working through internal politics—playing the centrist—as much as external, oppositional politics. Of course, the political landscape and history is different in the U.S., especially because of legacies of racial oppression. Furthermore the two-party presidential system offers more ideologically centralized power over certain executive functions than the pluralist parliamentary system in Switzerland. That said, the battle for hearts and minds and the rise of populist politics is currently an international phenomena, and those in opposition will need to learn from innovators like Flavia Kleiner and Operation Libero.

Flavia Kleiner visited the MIT Center for Civic Media on February 21, 2017. Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman for edits on this article. This piece is cross-posted on Civicist and the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

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