How the Populist Radical Right Transformed Swiss Welfare Politics: From Compromises to Polarization

Posted: 11 Feb 2013 Last revised: 17 Oct 2015

Date Written: August 9, 2014


This paper shows how the rise of populist right-wing parties (PRWPs) can affect welfare state reforms in multiparty systems by drawing on an analysis of unemployment and pension reforms in Switzerland between the 1990s and 2000s, a period during which the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) became the biggest party in the Swiss parliament. The article shows how the rise of the SVP has shrunk the centrist base of support for left-right compromises, which used to be considered as necessary in a consensus democracy with many veto points. In the 1990s, major welfare state reforms drew on coalitions between Liberals, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats combining retrenchment and “recalibration” in favour of labour market “outsiders”. In the 2000s the Liberals and Christian Democrats increasingly sided with the SVP against Social Democrats in right-wing “liberal-conservative” coalitions pushing retrenchment alone at the expense of “outsiders”. Second, the article shows that these changes in party competition have had differential impacts across social security schemes. The rise of the populist right has led to a policy gridlock in pension reforms, where oversized majorities in parliament are necessary to win referendum votes, but unilateral retrenchment in unemployment insurance. The article uses roll-call votes and interviews to support the argument.

Keywords: welfare state reform, populist radical right parties, unemployment, pensions, Switzerland

JEL Classification: I38, P16, D72

Suggested Citation

Afonso, Alexandre and Papadopoulos, Ioannis, How the Populist Radical Right Transformed Swiss Welfare Politics: From Compromises to Polarization (August 9, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Alexandre Afonso (Contact Author)

Leiden University ( email )

Postbus 9500
Leiden, Zuid Holland 2300 RA

Ioannis Papadopoulos

University of Lausanne ( email )

Quartier Chambronne
Lausanne, Vaud CH-1015

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