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Why the small Swiss town of Moutier is making headlines (again)

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Why the small Swiss town of Moutier is making headlines (again)
People demonstrate in Moutier in November last year after results of the 2017 vote are declared null and void. Photo: AFP
11:14 CEST+02:00
The latest chapter in the long-running saga of the commune of Moutier's bid to leave the canton of Bern and join neighbouring Jura made headlines in Switzerland on Thursday. Here is what you need to know.

So what has just happened?

The Bern Administrative Court has rejected appeals against a decision by cantonal authorities to declare a 2017 vote on the future of Moutier declared null and void.

In that vote, separatists carried the day in a result that would – if it hadn't been rejected – have seen the commune leave the predominantly German-speaking canton of Bern and join French-speaking Jura. 

Why was the 2017 vote declared invalid?

While the pro-Jura camp won by a very narrow margin of 137 votes, that wasn’t the end of the story.

There were allegations including improper propaganda by commune authorities as well as electoral tourism and possible vote rigging. The results of the vote were subsequently rejected by the authorities in Bern.

Why has this story received so much attention?

The story has been closely followed by Swiss media, who have called it Switzerland’s very own Brexit and even dubbed it ‘Mouxit’.

READ ALSO: 'Mouxit' - Moutier's decision highlights Switzerland's cultural divide

It has been simmering away since the 1970s and highlights one of the linguistic and cultural fault lines in Switzerland. 

While relations between French-speaking Switzerland (around 23 percent of the population) and the German-speaking Switzerland (around 66 percent of the population) are generally tension-free in the early 21st century, there are flash points. Moutier is one of those.

What is the background of the Moutier separatist drive?

The situation 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.

There were 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.

READ ALSO: Here is what you need to know about languages in Switzerland

However, 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 led to the 2017 vote which appeared to settle the issue once and for all until the decision by authorities in Bern to reject the result.

So where are we now?

Thursday’s result means the dream of a Jurassic Moutier is a step further from reality. But if events of the last few years are anything to go by, the issue is unlikely to simply disappear.

Pro-Jura campaigners in Moutier described Thursdays' ruling as a political decision and have already said that they will now take the matter to the Federal Supreme Court.

Are there other similar 'separatist' communes in Switzerland?

Developments in Moutier led two other villages in French-speaking Bern to hold votes on a possible switch to Jura. However, the residents of Sorvilier and Belprahon both voted in 2017 to stay with Bern.

READ ALSO: Inside Swiss politics - why everyone is talking about this worm poster

 

 
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