Votations in Switzerland on September 27, 2020 by Nora Camenisch-Ehinger and Markus Kern, University of Bern

Due to a backlog caused by the Covid-19-epidemic, the Swiss electorate had five proposals on its plate on September 27, 2020. In most cantons and municipalities additional decisions had to be taken on cantonal or local issues. The turnout was comparatively high at around 59%, sign of the strong mobilization of the political questions at stake.

After a rather calm period of campaign and a highly contested and partially close race on election Sunday, two of the proposals on the federal level were accepted and three of them rejected.

 

Popular initiative ‘For moderate immigration (Limitation Initiative)’[1]

Between Switzerland and the Member States of the European Union (EU) the principle of free movement of persons applies. The corresponding Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (FMPA) constitutes one of seven sectoral agreements of a first package of agreements – the so-called “Bilaterals I” –, which were concluded between Switzerland and the EU in 1999 and entered into force in 2002. This set of international agreements implements an integration of the Swiss market into the European market and reciprocally grants direct market access rights both for Swiss and European businesses. The termination of the FMPA would (by means of the so called “guillotine clause”) automatically invalidate the other six agreements in this package.

The initiative aimed at ending the free movement of persons with the EU. To this end, the Federal Council (federal government) was to seek the termination of the FMPA within twelve months after the acceptance of the popular initiative by means of negotiations with the EU. If this effort had failed, the Federal Council would have been under the constitutional obligation to unilaterally terminate the FMPA within a further 30 days. In this latter constellation, the other six agreements of the first package would also automatically have ceased to apply. In addition, the popular initiative would have prohibited Switzerland to enter into any new obligations under international law that grant foreigners the free movement of persons.

The popular initiative was proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). The party saw it as an instrument to implement the so-called initiative on mass immigration, which was accepted by the majority of the Swiss people and the cantons in 2014. According to the party’s viewpoint, this popular initiative was not implemented into Swiss law in a sufficiently strict manner. The current proposal is therefore to be seen as a second attempt to reach a strict implementation and to put a more rigorous control of immigration flows into practice. The main reason for the proposal is the fact that since the acceptance of the FMPA there has been substantive immigration into Switzerland, also from the European Union. Due to this development, the party sees the country’s prosperity at risk, fears higher unemployment, especially among older people, expects a further increase in real estate prices and rents and is worried about the disappearance of cultivated land and an increasing overload of infrastructures.

The Federal Council and Parliament recommended that the initiative be rejected. They warned of major disadvantages for Switzerland. The EU is the country’s most important trading partner. They, as well as the remaining big political parties in Switzerland, warned that the abolition of the bilateral agreements would reduce Switzerland’s economic performance and would lead to a further shortage in qualified workers in Switzerland. Opponents also argued that prosperity was at stake because good economic relations with Switzerland’s neighbors would be jeopardized.

The Swiss electorate clearly followed the recommendation of the Federal Council and Parliament on this issue and rejected the proposal by 61.71%. 22 cantons rejected the proposal. The turnout was 59.47%. The main reason for the rejection of the initiative is the strong acceptance of the bilateral legal framework between Switzerland and the European Union (the so-called “bilateral way”) by the Swiss population on the one hand and the reluctance of the voters to tinker around in these relations in times where uncertainties of other kinds dominate the public discourse. The rejection of the initiative will have an evident impact on the discussion surrounding the pending Framework Agreement between Switzerland and the European Union. On the day after the vote, the EU called for a swift signature and ratification of the Framework Agreement. The Union had made clear already some time ago, that it would require Switzerland to sign an institutional framework agreement in order to continue the bilateral path. This would include a mechanism for the settlement of disputes between Brussels and Berne. In internal Swiss politics, the draft agreement gave rise to major discussions. The contentious issues pertain, among other things, to state aid, wage protection and the automatic adoption of EU law in specific fields.

 

Amendment of the Hunting Act[2]

Currently around eighty wolves are living in Switzerland. This is not a matter of course: when the current hunting law was passed in 1986, there were no wolves living in Switzerland any more. They only returned to the country in the 1990ies. Since their return to Switzerland wolves have killed up to a few hundred farm animals a year, including animals from herds protected by fences and dogs. With the revised Hunting Act the legislator wanted to take account of the increasing number of wolves. It would have enabled the cantons to proactively regulate the wolf population in order to prevent damage. Under certain circumstances, the cantons would have been allowed to order the shooting of wolves. The shooting of a single wolf could have been ordered not only when a wolf has caused damage, but also when it behaved in a conspicuous manner or had become dangerous. This amendment would have been in conflict with the Berne Convention, to which Switzerland is a party and which lists wolves as a strongly protected species. Switzerland had requested the Council of Europe to re-classify the wolf as a species from a “strongly protected” to a “protected” animal, a request that had been rejected. In addition to the strongly debated handling of the wolf-population, the revised Hunting Act contained, among other things, provisions on animals that were to benefit from additional species protection.

Opponents of the bill were particularly disturbed by the possibility of shooting down animals without the requirement that any damage has been caused. They took the referendum against the revised Hunting Act in order to prevent a feared erosion of protection with regard to wild animals.

With a turnout of 59.32%, 51.93% of the voters rejected the new Hunting Act. The voting pattern showed a strong divide between the more rural parts of the country, which favored the amendment and the ensuing tougher stance concerning the wolf and the urban regions of Switzerland, where the revision of the Hunting Act was met with criticism. As a consequence of the rejection, the existing Hunting Act will remain in force.

 

Amendment of the Federal Act on Direct Federal Taxation[3]

Parents are allowed to make deductions from the direct federal tax for their children. With the proposed amendment of the Federal Act on Direct Federal Taxation, the maximum amount for the deduction of third-party care costs was to be increased from CHF 10,100 to CHF 25,000 and the general child deduction from CHF 6500 to CHF 10,000. The aim of the proposal was to provide tax relief for families as well as to further improve the reconcilability of work and family life.

A referendum was formed against the proposal. At first sight, it may seem surprising that political parties on the left initiated the referendum. They reason for the opposition to the proposal was, that it would have caused a considerable reduction of tax revenue on the federal level (estimated at around 370 million Swiss francs in lost revenue), that would have mainly benefited families with high income. The federal direct tax being highly progressive in nature, about 40 percent of the families do not pay any direct federal tax because their income is too low. This part of the population would thus also not have benefitted from the expansion of the tax deductions.

These arguments voiced by the opponents of the proposal were heard by the Swiss electorate: The bill was rejected by 63.24% of the voters. The turnout was 59.19%.

 

Amendment of the Loss of Earnings Compensation Act[4]

The bill entitled “Amendment of the Loss of Earnings Compensation Act” stands for a proposal for paternity leave, which has long been discussed in Switzerland. The bill was developed by the Federal authorities as an indirect counter-proposal to a popular initiative calling for a four-week paternity leave for all working fathers.

In Switzerland, mothers are legally entitled to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. As employees, fathers are currently entitled to one or two days off. In practice however, individual sectors or companies voluntarily grant a more generous leave on a private basis. With the adoption of the proposal, all working fathers are entitled to two weeks’ paid paternity leave. The leave has to be taken within six months of the birth of the child. The paternity leave is to be financed by the Loss of Earnings Compensation Act (EO), a mandatory insurance mechanism alimented mainly by contributions from employees and employers. The costs of the proposal are estimated at around 230 million Swiss francs annually. In order to finance this sum, the contributions to the EO are to be increased from 0.45 to 0.50 percent of wagessta, with half of the amount for salaried employees being paid by employees and half by employers.

Opponents of the proposal argued that with the higher wage deductions, everyone would have to pay for “holidays” enjoyed by a few. According to their view, the resulting increase in contributions is not financially sustainable particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises.

The “Amendment of the Loss of Earnings Compensation Act” was accepted by 60.34% of the voters and the proposed paternity leave will therefore become law by 2021. The turnout was 59.34%.

 

Federal Decree on the Procurement of New Fighter Aircraft[5]

Finally, a proposal for the procurement of new fighter aircraft was put to the popular vote. Existing Swiss combat aircraft are ageing and have to be taken out of service in the coming years. The proposal therefore envisaged the procurement of new jets by 2030. Around 6 billion Swiss francs of the general budget of the army would thus have to be earmarked for this purpose. In return, the winning manufacturer would have to award contracts to companies in Switzerland for 60% of the purchase price.

One of the interesting aspects in the respect is the fact, that Parliament could have decided on this issue without the possibility for the people to have a direct democratic say on this questions. Decisions on budgetary questions normally are not open to referenda on the federal level. This stands in a stark contrast to the cantonal (and the municipal) level, where so-called “finance referenda” constitute the rule. However, the Federal Council and the Parliament again sought the legitimization of this decision by the Swiss people after a first procurement attempt had already been stopped by a successful referendum in 2014. In order to allow for a referendum, they chose the form of a federal decree open to referenda for the decision of this issue. The required signatures were collected and a referendum held.

In the opinion of the opponents of the bill, it constitutes a blanket authorization for the procurement of superfluous fighter jets. According to their view, these financial means would thus be lacking in other important areas such as public health, civil protection or the fight against climate change. Moreover, they argued that alternatives such as light fighter jets had not been considered sufficiently.

The proposal was on the brink of failure until the very end of the voting day. The proposal was finally accepted by a very slim margin of only 8700 votes making the difference, resulting in an acceptance rate of 50.14% (59.41% turnout). Given this agreement by the people, the Federal Council will now decide on the type and number of aircrafts to be procured and then submit its decision to Federal Parliament for approval.

[1] https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/votes/20200927/limitation-initiative.html.

[2] https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/votes/20200927/amendment-of-the-hunting-act.html.

[3] https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/votes/20200927/amendment-of-the-federal-act-on-direct-federal-taxation.html.

[4] https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/votes/20200927/amendment-of-the-loss-of-earnings-vompensation-act%20.html.

[5] https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/votes/20200927/federal-decree-on-the-procurement-of-new-fighter-aircraft.html.

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