The Operation Libero movement launched in Bern, Switzerland, on October 13th, in 2014, in reaction to the referendum vote ‘against mass immigration‘, that had been validated in March of that same year.
‘Against mass immigration’ added an article to the Swiss Federal Constitution forcing Switzerland to manage the immigration of foreigners autonomously, through the setting of annual quotas ‘in compliance with the principle of national preference’. The measure aimed to curb immigration from European Union countries because, according to its initiators, ‘uncontrolled immigration (…) threatens our freedom, our security, full employment, the beauty of our landscapes and ultimately our prosperity.’
At the time of this referendum initiative, and for the past 25 years, Swiss public debate had been dominated by the Swiss People’s Party, a conservative, nationalist and populist party that positions itself somewhere between the right and the far-right of the political spectrum. Also known as the Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC), it has the most seats in parliament and the most financial resources. The party presents itself as the sole defender of Swiss interests. It defines ‘real people’ as Swiss citizens without an immigrant background, as opposed to the liberal ‘elite’ who defend universal and European values, and foreigners. In order to attract the attention of the media, the Swiss People’s Party is also adept at sensationalist and alarmist stories and speeches about the state of Switzerland.
The Libero movement was created spontaneously by Swiss students. As Flavia Kleiner, co-founder and former president of Operation Libero, explained in 2016, “the approval of the February 9th initiative against mass immigration was a shock to me and my friends. We felt alienated. I said to myself: How could this have happened?”
After the blow of the mass immigration referendum, many were deeply disappointed with political actors who accepted the premise of the initiative without offering an alternative: “They have only taken up the discourse of the SVP on immigration, without saying no, without offering an opposing vision”, and with this came the sentiment that something had to be done.
While the Guardian presents Operation Libero as the main force of opposition to the policies advocated by the UDC, Operation Libero denies being a political party. It does not field candidates for elections, and its members are free to join existing political parties. Nevertheless, the movement seeks to influence electoral campaigns and participate in public debate by taking a position on major political and societal issues. Today, Operation Libero has its own secretariat and 1500 members, mainly young academics and members of the Swiss Parliament, who pay an annual fee. The movement also mobilizes various political groups and activists opposed to populist anti-immigrant and anti-liberal measures. Today, Operation Libero has over 10,000 donors and 5,000 volunteers.
The political movement Operation Libero has two objectives:
– To restructure the Swiss public debate around ‘Swiss values’ by reviving the interest and political participation of all citizens.
– To fuel the country’s public debate and defend the vision of a multicultural, cosmopolitan, modern and progressive Switzerland by opposing certain ideas and parts of the program of the Democratic Union of the Centre.
Operation Libero can be described as social-liberal from an economic point of view and liberal from a societal point of view. As co-president of Operation Libero, Laura Zimmerman, points out “we defend economic and societal liberalism while recognizing the role of the state in setting the framework conditions”.
The main ideas put forward by the movement are:
– The defense of an open labor market with the maintenance of European free movement.
– Liberalization of policies concerning the immigration of foreigners.
– The facilitation of the naturalization procedure.
– The defense of a European policy ensuring cooperation between the European Union and Switzerland.
– The defense of the rights of homosexuals.
– The defense of a policy of redistribution and aid.
In 2021, Operation Libero announced that it would focus its efforts on the following themes:
– A right to liberal citizenship.
– A Switzerland that cooperates with its European neighbors.
– A digital transformation that strengthens democracy and transparency in political life.
Real effects on Swiss political life
Operation Libero has coordinated numerous campaigns around referendum initiatives and federal elections. The secretary general of the Christian Democratic Party, Beatrice Wertli, said of the movement “the traditional parties are not unhappy with this unexpected support. Operation Libero has mobilized people who are not all politically active which is precious when you know that the largest party in Switzerland is the party of abstentionists”.
In 2016, Operation Libero launched a campaign against the referendum initiative ‘For the effective removal of criminal foreigners’. Thanks to this campaign, which was a significant moment for the Swiss political debate on integration and immigration, the referendum initiative was rejected by 59% of the voters. At the end of the campaign, Operation Libero became a recognized and listened-to force in the Swiss political debate.
Among the other actions carried out by the movement are the campaign against the ‘initiative for self-determination’, the mobilization in favor of the vote for the ‘facilitated naturalization for the third generation’, and the mobilization in favor of the federal popular initiative ‘Yes to the abolition of radio and television license fees’.
An innovative method and discourse online and in the field
– Means and places used:
Operation Libero carries out its actions on social networks, on university campuses, in the press, and during public meetings. In general, and unlike many political parties and movements, Operation Libero’s activists have chosen to target all Swiss citizens, not only a few identified and segmented groups.
On social networks, the movement relies on numerous activists of all ages and backgrounds (‘online fighters’) and influencers. They use the method of ‘trolling trollers’ (‘trolling’ being widely used by populist movements and parties), inserting themselves into individual public exchanges, and responding to the toxic messages of populists by using facts to dismantle their rhetoric.
On the ground, the movement organizes events where volunteers hand out merchandise, branded tote bags or socks, with the movement’s logo. Operation Libero also finances campaigns in ‘mainstream’ and popular newspapers (and not only in the big political newspapers) and poster campaigns on the street. The movement shares its campaign materials on its websites and sends them to people who want to organize physical meetings.
– The rhetoric and method developed:
Operation Libero asserts that ‘Swiss values’ are respect for institutions, the rule of law, individual freedoms, ‘positive’ and open patriotism. They have both an emotional and a rational appeal, to show the broader public that the defenders of these Swiss values – and therefore of Switzerland – are movements like Operation Libero. This is in contrast to the Swiss People’s Party, who, they argue, undermine the traditional institutions, the rule of law, the freedoms, and therefore the foundations of Switzerland.
Operation Libero proposes a vision of the future rather than complaining about the present. Thus, the movement promotes an optimistic vision of Switzerland in 2050, which it sees as a country with an open and dynamic future, a land of opportunity for all those who live there. This vision is in contrast with the conservative and backward-looking vision promoted by the populist right.
Operation Libero uses simple language, accessible to all, linking to popular themes that attract people’s attention. The movement offers clear explanations of complex political issues and uses fun images that people can easily read and share. Operation Libero systematically exposes and deconstructs the lies and false claims of populists with facts.
Operation Libero speaks to all of society, not just a segment of citizens, because one of its priorities is to strengthen political participation.
The Operation Libero movement demonstrates that citizens – even non-politicized ones – can still be mobilized on issues considered complex and dry when given the right political messages, presented in the right way.
This is done by:
– Appealing to positive emotions and popular images to make concepts such as freedom, rule of law, and democracy accessible, likeable, and desirable to ordinary citizens.
– Inserting the concepts of ‘freedom’ and the ‘rule of law’ into the discussions and exchanges that take place in cafes or bars, or other places where citizens meet daily.
– Strongly asserting that a patriotic defense of the values of one’s country should not be reserved for populists.
– Confronting the weaponized rhetoric used by populists by emptying them of their toxic and negative content through reason and facts.
– Investing in research and work to continue to innovate and design the right messages and images that oppose populist rhetoric and engage the public.
– Combining online and on-the-ground actions.