Five things we learned from Switzerland's weekend referendums

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Five things we learned from Switzerland's weekend referendums
Bicycles were among the big winners on Sunday. File photo: Depositphotos"

Swiss voters cast their ballots in several national and regional referendums on the weekend. Here are the key takeaways.


1) Switzerland could see a nationwide ‘burqa ban’ if the result in St. Gallen is anything to go by

The regional referendum that gained the most attention over the weekend took place in the eastern canton of St. Gallen.

This saw just under 67 percent of voters approve a law that bans the covering of one's face when this “endangers public security or social and religious peace".

With the result, St. Gallen has become the second Swiss canton, after Ticino, to introduce a 'burqa ban'.

Swiss media noted this result gave new impetus to a federal burqa ban initiative set to be voted on in a referendum in future. This view was echoed by Christian Democrats (CVP) Party President Gerhard Pfister, who said the upcoming federal referendum had “a good chance”.

Read also: Women shoppers flout burqa ban in Ticino

Opponents of the St. Gallen ‘burqa ban’, which does not specify how security forces can determine if a woman in a burqa poses a risk, expressed their disappointment.

Timo Räbsamen of the Young Socialists said the ban was “not practically enforceable” while cantonal police minister, Fredy Fässler of the Socialist Party, described the law as “ineffective” and said it would almost never be enforced.

Since the burqa ban was introduced in Ticino in 2016, there have been 37 infractions – ten in the first half of 2018. Most cases related to football fans, while only a handful have involved women wearing burqas or niqabs.

Authorities in St Gallen must now draw up guidelines on how the new law will be enforced.

2) Support for the 'fair food' and 'food sovereignty' initiatives was much higher in French-speaking cantons

Swiss voters on Sunday came out strongly against two initiatives on the future of the country’s embattled agriculture sector: the ‘fair food’ initiative’ and the ‘food sovereignty initiative’.

Read also: What you need to know about Switzerland's two food referendums

A total of 61.3 percent of voters said no to the fair food initiative while 68.4 percent said no to the food sovereignty initiative.

However, French-speaking media in the country focused on the so-called “Röstigraben” – a reference to the divide between the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland and the rest of the country – when it came to the results.

While the referendums were rejected at a national level, support in French-speaking cantons was much higher.

This was true for the fair food initiative in particular, which obtained a majority 'yes' vote in the cantons of Vaud, Geneva, Neuchatel and Jura. The food sovereignty initiative obtained a majority ‘yes’ vote in Vaud and Geneva while the ‘no’ vote narrowly won in Neuchatel and Jura.

Fribourg daily La Liberté noted German-speaking Switzerland “refused to be told by anyone what they could eat” and that it opposed increased state intervention in the market, which was one of the key features of the food sovereignty initiative.

Meanwhile, Jura newspaper Le Quotidien Jurassien noted French-speaking Switzerland had had its opinion “squashed” by the German-speaking part of the country.

French-speaking Switzerland has a different relationship to food, Le Quotidien Jurassien said, adding that the majority of “protected designations of origin” were in that part of the country.

French-speaking papers as a whole put the rejection of the two food referendums on the part of Swiss voters down to arguments that their introduction would lead to higher food prices.

Several German-speaking newspapers, meanwhile, said voters had given their backing to the country’s current agricultural policies.

3) Bicycles had a small victory on Sunday

A watered-down and largely symbolic bicycle initiative was backed by nearly three in four votes (74 percent) around the country, with a majority of voters in all cantons backing a proposal that will give bicycle paths a place in the Swiss federal constitution alongside footpaths and hiking tracks.

Read also: Why you should get on your bike in Switzerland

It will see federal authorities handed more responsibility for developing cycling paths across the country. However, the cantons are expected to remain in charge and the federal government is not obliged to financially support the creation of bike paths.

4) Davos still loves the World Economic Forum (WEF)

Voters in the Swiss resort town of Davos, famous for its annual talkfest of the rich and the powerful, approved an increase in the security budget for the event. This figure will now be upped to 9 million Swiss francs ($9.38 million) with local authorities shelling out one eighth of this amount.

5) Turnout was relatively low

Just 37 percent of voters cast their ballots in the latest round of referendums in Switzerland. The average turnout from 2011 to 2017 was 46.4 percent.

Read also: How Switzerland's direct democracy system works



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