A restive canton: the rise of Ticino’s own Lega

Lega's election poster, 2007.
Lega's election poster, 2007. Author: Stefano Bertocchi
ANALYSIS. By Stefano Arroque. Switzerland is not the first place that comes to mind when one thinks about populist regionalism. In fact, this landlocked country is renowned for its apparent solidity, which treads the thin line between the great autonomy that each of its 26 Cantons has from the Federal Government, and the unity perceived by all to be not only vital to their very survival as independent entities, but also to the maintenance of the country's unique direct democratic tradition.

However, in the last years, Switzerland is being portrayed in the international media as a bastion of conservative nationalism, often with xenophobic overtones, due to the rising popularity and political power of the Swiss People's Party (better known by the acronym SVP), which now holds more seats in the National Council than any other political organization. Other than its controversial policies, the SVP is known for its heavy use of propaganda, often featuring xenophobic overtones, a strategy that garnered a great deal of success among its electorate and widespread support in the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland. SVP votes have become, thus, a thermometer for anti-immigrant policies in the country, and, as the Cantonal breakdown of the February 2014 immigration referendum demonstrates, a mostly accurate one [1].

One major exception stands out, though: the Canton of Ticino, where the SVP (known as UDC in French and Italian-speaking regions) has a marginal share of the seats in the Cantonal Assembly. Instead, the Canton has produced its own movement: the Lega dei Ticinesi, Italian for League of the Ticinese People. Sharing many core values with the SVP, and adding to them a regionalist flavor, the Lega has managed to dominate the Italian-speaking Canton's political scene, ever since its inception – an astonishing rise, that surprised even the most skeptical of political analysts.

Ticino itself is an oddity within Switzerland. In order to understand its complex regional politics and the staunch isolationism promoted by the Lega, it is important to understand the Canton's history and the complex relationship it has had with its southern and northern neighbors. It was not until the late 18th century that the Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland were able to have their own government, free from the German-speaking overlords who had ruled those lands since their annexation from Milan during the 15th and 16th centuries. Early attempts towards the establishment of a greater autonomy were met with severe resistance, the most famous example being that of the 1755 Leventina Valley Uprising, which was crushed by the military of the Uri Canton (assisted by troops of other German speaking Cantons which, together, were in charge of the so-called Bailiwicks), ending up with its leaders being executed and the few existing self-rule institutions being dismantled.

During the short-lived centralist State instituted by Napoleon, the former Bailiwicks were elevated to the Cantons of Bellinzona and Lugano –which were soon unified as Ticino. Since then, Ticino had not attempted to secede from the Confederation, and, due to its liberal government, was staunchly against the rebel Cantons in the Sonderbund War, when some conservative Catholic regions attempted to break away from the central administration due to their opposition to the introduction of a Federal Constitution strongly influenced by liberals. The Sonderbund War ended with the declaration of a Federal State, with all Cantons having equal status – a model that still exists to this day.

Nevertheless, Ticino has retained a distinct identity and self-perception, owing to this troubled relationship. Even though it has been dominated for decades by the Free Democratic Party (FDP, also referred to, in Italian Switzerland, as Liberal Radical Party, or PLR), the very same party that came to be known as the post-War political powerhouse in Berne, the rise of the Lega in the 1990s has proven that the nationalist and increasingly isolationist positions that were gaining ground in German-speaking Switzerland with the growth of a more conservative and militant SVP, led by Cristoph Blocher, were in line with the thought of many voters in the Italian-speaking Canton [2]. One may ask, thus, why these ideas came to be represented in Ticino by a new party, the Lega, instead of the SVP as it had happened in the rest of the country. It would be impossible to formulate a plausible answer to such question, without first making an attempt to understand the mind of the Lega's late founder and President-for-life: Giuliano Bignasca.

Bignasca was one of the most polarizing personalities in Swiss politics –an even more radical version of Cristoph Blocher, who mixed SVP's nationalism with the exclusivism and even symbolism of yet another leader, with whom he is often compared, Umberto Bossi [3]. Born and raised in Lugano, the economic and cultural heart of Ticino, and a businessman by profession – alongside his brother Attilio Bignasca, who is also involved in politics and became the Lega's President after Giuliano's death – he was a man who could present himself as a true representative of the Ticinese people. A man whose allegiance was exclusive to them, whom the central government would not be able to control or buy up. Coming into prominence through his right-wing weekly newspaper Il Mattino della Domenica, Mr. Bignasca officially entered politics in 1991, founding the Lega dei Ticinesi, a political party that promised to uphold the ideas presented in the paper [4]. Right at the beginning, Mr. Bignasca moved to take full control of the party's leadership, and, although he was only in the Swiss parliament for a brief period of time and never entered the Council of State –Ticino's highest governing body– preferring, instead, to launch other candidates from the Lega's ranks, there was no question whatsoever regarding who was in charge.

His leadership proved to be successful: on the first election, the Lega managed to grab 12% of the vote, and, in the course of two decades, established itself as one of the dominant political organizations in the Canton, presenting, for the first time in many years, a challenge to the PLR's hegemony [5]. On the last contest, Bignasca's party won 22 seats in Ticino's 90-seat Grand Council, coming in second place, with only two seats less than the PLR [6]. In the Council of State, composed of five members, it is the only party to have two representatives.

The magic formula for this meteoric rise? Exploring the contempt for the central government, referred to as “bailiffs”, who neither knows, nor does it care to know, about its Italian-speaking Canton's issues: a speech that would not sound out of place in 18th century Leventina Valley; and promoting an idea of Ticinese exclusivity, based on historical and present circumstances, the most notable of the latter being the current influx of migrant workers from Italy. During the last elections, the refugee crisis and a perceived “Islamization” of Switzerland have fueled xenophobic sentiment, and, whereas in the rest of the country they have worked in favor of the SVP, in Ticino the Lega became their natural platform [6].

One thing that differs the Lega dei Ticinesi from its Italian counterpart, however, is its desire to remain a part of Switzerland. The Confederative nature of the country makes it possible for the Cantons to wield a greater degree of autonomy than they would in Italy –or, for that matter, in any other European country– and, therefore, demands for independence are practically absent. At the same time, however, one of the Lega's main integration projects involves Insubria [7], a controversially-defined and historically-tied region, comprising Lombardy, Ticino and other areas of Northern Italy, which has been the focus of much of the cooperation between the two Leagues. It may seem controversial that the same party that bashes Italian migrant workers ad, in many occasions, the Italian state itself, has dedicated itself to such a project [8]. Also controversial is the aggressive rhetoric against Berne, when compared to the ostensive display of Swiss flags at the party's rallies.

Confusing and rowdy as it might appear, however, the Lega is no more than a product of the Canton's past and present, the radical end of an ideological dispute between a closer integration with Europe –risking, in the party's voters' views, to lose its very own identity– and an enhancing of the traditional Swiss isolationism, seeking to preserve Ticino's uniqueness, but losing the benefits that could be brought by a bigger proximity towards the rest of the continent.

Ultimately, the Lega's greatest advantage is the same of most European populist parties: being seen as giving ordinary people a voice against the ruling political class. It is, now more than ever, important that the Swiss government starts listening to the Ticinese complaints and demands, and working together with Cantonal authorities towards finding a solution that would bring the best possible outcome for its inhabitants. The failure to do so will only strengthen the Lega –and, probably, push it even further to the right. In the years to come, what will be at stake is more than just regular party politics: it is an opportunity to defeat radicalism and to restore the trust of the people of Ticino.


1. Office fédéral de la statistique: Initiative populaire «Contre l'immigration de masse», par canton, Berne, 9 February 2014
2. L. D’Agostino, swissinfo.ch: Il “Sonderfall” Ticino, swissinfo.ch, 3 March 2002
3. Morto Bignasca, il leader della Lega dei Ticinesi, Corriere.it, 7 March 2013
4. Gerhard Lob, swissinfo.ch: I due decenni della Lega dei ticinesi, swissinfo.ch, 17 January 2011
5. Gerhard Lob, op. cit.
6. Tremila firme contro il burqa, Cdt.ch, 18 June 2010
7. Bignasca disegna l’Insubria, infoinsubria.com, 3 November 2011
8. A. Madron, Il Fatto Quotidiano: Svizzera, nuovo attacco della Lega ticinese: “Un muro ci separi dall’Italia”, ilfattoquotidiano.it, 27 September 2012