Violence flared in the Swiss capital of Bern as left-wing protesters tried to stop a pre-election campaign event by the nationalist Swiss People’s Party.
Police fired tear gas as demonstrators hurled rocks and bottles in front of parliament to interrupt a march and rally by about 5,000 SVP [Swiss People’s Party] supporters.
The SVP has been criticised recently for its hard-line views on immigration.
Its campaign posters—showing white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag—have stirred controversy.
The party, which has campaigned against minarets in Swiss cities, condemned the violence as contrary to the country’s democratic tradition.
The disorder comes two weeks before the country’s 21 October parliamentary elections.
Recent polls have forecast the SVP to emerge as the largest vote-winner.
[Editors Note: Video of the Swiss riots can be viewed here.]
The Swiss capital of Berne was turned into a battle zone at the weekend when leftwing radicals seized control of the main square outside parliament, routing the main far-right political party two weeks before a general election and catching the Swiss police off guard.
Dozens of protesters were arrested and around two dozen people injured, mostly police officers, as police deployed tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets to try to regain control from gangs of highly organised, masked people who turned the small and normally sleepy capital of Switzerland into a scene of devastation.
The clashes on Saturday and the revulsion triggered among mainstream Swiss by the unusual street violence are likely to play into the hands of Christoph Blocher, the tough-talking populist and millionaire industrialist who leads the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the far-right movement tipped to win the elections later this month following a campaign denounced as overtly racist by a United Nations watchdog.
Mr Blocher called a campaign rally of his party in the capital and some 10,000 of his supporters converged on Berne to march to the capital’s main square in front of parliament.
But the planned rally was hijacked by up to 1,000 masked street fighters who blocked the SVP’s progress, outwitted the police by operating in small groups moving in and out of the crowds, and ransacked the SVP stage and campaign equipment.
The Federal Square, site of a charming Saturday morning flower and vegetable market, resembled a war zone by Saturday night, littered with debris, masonry, shattered glass and torched metal.
The city mayor admitted “impotence” in the face of the riots. The trouble raised questions about the readiness of the Swiss authorities to cope with potential hooliganism at next summer’s Euro 2008 football championship being hosted jointly by Austria and Switzerland.
Mr Blocher’s SVP is expected to emerge as the strongest party with more than a quarter of the vote in the elections in two weeks due to a blunt anti-immigrant campaign, broadsides against the European Union, and a robust affirmation of traditional Swiss isolationism. The party’s main election poster bears the slogan: My Home, Our Switzerland, Keep It Secure. It shows three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the red-and-white Swiss flag. The UN’s xenophobia watchdog, based in Switzerland, described the explicit anti-immigrant message as openly racist.
The foreign minister and current Swiss president, Micheline Calmy-Rey, a social democrat, has complained that the SVP campaign is giving Switzerland a bad name and partially blamed it for the weekend violence. “One should not play with fear just to win a few votes,” she said. “The current provocations and attacks in politics leave their mark.”
But the confrontation in a country not used to political violence could boost Mr Blocher’s support and entrench his pugnacious nationalist conservatism as the leading force in Switzerland. The SVP is collecting signatures demanding a referendum on the deportation of “criminal foreigners.”
“Foreigners are shamelessly abusing Swiss hospitality. This has to be stopped,” the SVP manifesto argues. The success of the SVP campaign is being studied by neo-Nazi groups in Germany.
Markus Meier, a reader, commenting in the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, wrote: “How can pseudo-political activists organise a riot-party in a Swiss town, cause thousands of francs worth of damage and leave the taxpayer to pick up the bill.”
Mr Blocher criticised the police for being unable to ensure safety for an authorised political meeting after his rally was forced to retreat. “It’s obvious that the biggest party in Switzerland can no longer go to the federal square,” Mr Blocher told his supporters to huge applause.
Police officers admitted they had been outwitted by the guerrilla tactics of the rioters who set fires, lifted paving stones, torched vehicles, hurled stones and petrol bombs, and laid waste to the jewellers’ stores and posh watch dealers of the capital. The Berne police chief, Stephan Huegli, described the events as a black day for Swiss democracy and freedom of speech.