It was dubbed ‘Mouxit’ by the Swiss press: the ongoing attempt by the small commune of Moutier in the canton of Bern to switch over its allegiance to the neighbouring canton of Jura.
And last year, it seemed voters in the French-speaking commune with a population of around 7,500 had got their wish. A narrow majority backed a referendum proposal to leave the predominantly German-speaking canton of Bern and join their French-speaking brothers and sisters in Jura.
It was also a very close-run thing. A total of just 51.7 percent of people in the commune backed the change of cantonal allegiance with 2,067 percent of votes cast for ‘yes’ and 1,930 cast by "remainers".
However, with the result, it seemed that almost 40 years of simmering tensions in the commune had come to an end. There were noisy celebrations in the town amid speculation that the thorny ‘Jura question’ had finally been put to bed.
Vote declared invalid
However, on Sunday morning, a high-ranking official from the Bernese Jura declared the result of the 2017 referendum invalid. Allegations included improper propaganda by commune authorities as well as electoral tourism and possible vote rigging.
Authorities in Bern responded with a statement in which they said negotiations on Moutier’s switch from the canton of Bern to Jura were now impossible.
The reaction from local authorities was rapid and virulent. Moutier mayor Marcel Winistörfer described the decision as “a disgrace in a country which holds itself up as a paradigm of democracy”.
These words were echoed by the head of Jura separatist movement, Pierre-André Comte, who described the ruling as “shameful” and a “disgrace”. The cantonal government in Jura also said the decision was not supported by evidence and was "political in nature".
Meanwhile, Bern authorities and Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga called for calm.
Decades of tensions
The particularly Swiss separatist struggle in Moutier – in this highly decentralized country, cantons are a key badge of identity – has its more immediate origins in the period after the Second World War when French-speaking areas of the canton of Bern (the so-called Bernese Jura) became increasingly frustrated with their situation.
An official prepares votes ahead of the 2017 vote in Moutier, Switzerland. Photo: AFP
This led to a series of votes in the 1970s on the future of the canton, and eventually to the creation, in 1979. of Switzerland’s newest (and 26th canton) Jura. But only three of the seven French-speaking districts in Bern decided to join the new canon. The other four (including Moutier) sided with powerful Bern – home to the nation's capital – despite language differences.
However, the issue never really went away. Activists continued to pursue the separatist cause and the arrival of a pro-Jura administration in Moutier resulted in a consultative referendum in 2013 where a majority of voters expressed their support for leaving Bern.
This then eventually led to last year’s referendum and a victory for the “leavers” which many commentators said highlighted the cultural and language divide between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland.
After the victory, Moutier was set to join Jura in around 2021, thus boosting that canton’s population by a further 10 percent. But that possibility now looks a long way off.
An uncertain future
What happens next is unknown. The decision to declare the result of the 2017 election null and void can be appealed, as the justice minister noted.
However, any such appeal, which can be lodged by Moutier city hall or by any eligible voter in the commune, would involve cantonal authorities in Bern and then the Federal Supreme Court. It could take years, and seriously delay Moutier’s desired switch to Jura.
A further option would be to accept last Sunday’s decision by authorities in Bern and then request permission from the canton to repeat the vote, as Valentin Zuber with the organization Moutier, Ville Jurassienne (Moutier, a Jurassic city) told regional daily the Berner Zeitung. But it is unclear how the canton would react to such a request.
The next step is to see whether an appeal is lodged.
In the meantime, the town remains divided.
On Friday, the MAJ will hold a silent march in the town to draw attention to its plight. The marchers will wear red tape over their mouths to show “democracy has not been respected” Zuber told the Berner Zeitung.