Campaign poster in Basel, Switzerland, October 2011
It’s the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and here we are in Switzerland with not a turkey in sight but for a few meagre slices of deli turkey – not quite the same as the usual mountain of slow-roasted turkey, stuffing and gravy. Please take note of our suffering and deprivation.
Meanwhile, here in Switzerland the current obsession is the upcoming federal election. We haven’t seen any political lawn signs – perhaps they are illegal, or maybe just not part of the common practice. Instead signs are all over the train stations, and in commercial billboards.
It may shock some of you to know that I was once in charge of designing political signs for a friend of mine who did some math on an upcoming election, realized the vote was neatly split, leaving the takings open for her.
This is not to say that I am heavily politically inclined one way or another, but it is to say that if my friend takes it upon herself to invite personal abuse in the form of holding public office, I will be there to assist her in this endeavour, however foolhardy it may be. It was foolhardy. She won, and for the next three years I had a front row seat on the public pounding she took from all quarters. Anyway, this tendency to help a friend even for a sometimes-irksome political party suggests my character has a few flaws, but loyalty to my friends is not one of them. Or maybe it is. You decide.
But the point is that ever since then I’ve taken an interest in campaign signs and the unspoken messages they deliver, which is the only way I can read them here in Switzerland as all the signs are in French, German or Italian and I haven’t got a clue what they’re saying. I’m going on visual cues alone.
One party groups its candidates on posters to resemble a family portrait, for example, placing a middle-age woman with two younger candidates who could be her adult children. Their smiling faces say “We get along with everyone. Join our family!”
Other signs seek to invoke the trustworthiness of authority, showing men who look like bankers in suits and ties. They are all vying for a post in the “Nationalrat,” which means parliament or national office – I do not have to make up this name (see above for the proof).
Very few signs are defaced, (back in B.C. our signs had an impressively short lifespan), but of even more interest is what form campaign graffiti takes here on this side of the Atlantic. Several signs have been defaced with dabs of Hitler moustaches and the word “Nazis.” It is the only type of campaign graffiti we have seen thus far.
Nazis are an odd fringe group in North America. I once interviewed a Washington State Nazi party leader that plans to take over Vancouver and turn it into an all-white state, prompting me to ask him, “Have you been to Vancouver lately? You really have your work cut out for you.” Later, I informed an Indo-Canadian friend of mine of the white-supremacist intentions for that city. She laughed and said, “We already own Vancouver!” Neither of us took the man seriously, but over here, the mention of Nazis is a different thing altogether, carrying ominous tones. Elderly Swiss citizens remember standing guard at the border, readying for a possible German invasion. And so this must be the ultimate insult to Swiss candidates – to be likened to Nazis.
How much truth is there in rhetoric? Right-wing parties are typically referred to as Nazis while left-wing parties are Stalinists. Even my friend who won political office was accused of being a Nazi – a tag that was both at once repugnant, and hilarious for the fact that it could not have been further from the truth.
We’re still several weeks away from the election. This is Switzerland, the land of the orderly and neat, so I don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but then who knows? This continent’s history is palpable even today.
Addendum: A turkey part was located at a nearby grocery store. In keeping with Canadian custom, it has been consumed.