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Why is Switzerland holding a referendum on purchasing fighter jets?

On September 27th, Swiss voters will go to the polls to decide on the purchase of new fighter jets. Here's what you need to know.

Why is Switzerland holding a referendum on purchasing fighter jets?
Switzerland will go to the polls to vote on purchasing fighter jets. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
It might sound odd to people from around the world – particularly Americans – but the Swiss even get a direct say in the purchase of military equipment. 
The Swiss government wants to spend CHF6 billion ($USS6 billion) on new fighter jets.
The issue will be put to the Swiss electorate on September 27th, along with four other questions. 
A similar question was put to the Swiss public in 2014 but was rejected, with 55 percent of voters objecting to the purchase of 22 'Gripen' fighter jets. 

This was the first referendum of its kind in Switzerland, although nationwide votes on military and national defence issues are held frequently in Switzerland. 

Why Switzerland is holding a referendum on purchasing fighter jets?

Although voting on national security matters of this nature may be unusual from an international perspective, it was not always the case. 

Up until 1924, men could only vote if they had been a part of the military, while several countries had referenda on conscription during the 20th century (Australia, Iceland, Canada – and Austria in 2013). 

In Switzerland, the tradition of voting on national security matters has been kept alive. More than half of the 45 military and national security votes have taken place since 1970. 

The Swiss believe that direct democracy should have a central role in military matters. 

EXPLAINED: Switzerland's referendum to restrict EU migration 

As noted by Swiss media outlet Swissinfo, “the successful use of direct democratic instruments to regulate national security issues is almost exclusively a Swiss habit today.” 

“The Alpine state has a role model function and wants to carry this out to the outside world”

The Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces (DCAF) was formed by the Swiss government in 2000 and now has more than 60 member states. 

Switzerland will go to the polls to vote on purchasing fighter jets. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Who is in favour – and who is opposed?

The Swiss government says the jets are necessary to protect the country's airspace – and this time around they haven't specified the type of jets which will be purchased, but have instead asked for the people's permission to expand the military budget by a set amount. 

The government, a clear advocate of the plan, argues that the jets are needed in order for Switzerland to protect its own airspace. 

“The current jet fighters are either ageing or already obsolete. They will have to be taken out of service around 2030. The Federal Council and Parliament take the view that fighter jets will continue to be needed in the future in order to protect the Swiss population against threats from our skies.”

The government has not given an indication as to what will take place if the referendum fails, although as noted by Swiss political commentator Sean Mueller from the University of Lausanne, the government has gone all in on trying to convince the public that the jets are necessary. 

“It is probably also in an effort to win over the more army-sceptical female voters (currently 50% in favour; men: 64%) that Defence Minister Viola Amherd has suspiciously often been seen crossing the tarmac with the Air Force’s only female pilot, Fanny Chollet,” Mueller writes. 

Opponents of the plan argue “that the new aircraft are too expensive, ecologically questionable and unnecessary for Switzerland. Switzerland's air police capabilities could also be ensured with less expensive alternatives.”

The Society for a Switzerland without an Army gathered 50,000 signatures to support their opposition to purchasing the new jets. 

Will it pass? 

Mueller notes that the government has “learned its lesson” from 2014. 

Instead of calling a vote on adopting specific types of fighter jets as it did six years ago, no specific type of jets or equipment are on the cards. 

Mueller suggests that a general budget approval will therefore be easier to obtain. 

With support from all of Switzerland’s major political parties, the referendum is tipped for approval.


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For members


Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence

Swiss government has devised three contingency plans that could be implemented to fight a new outbreak. What are they?

Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence
Authorities want to prevent overcrowded hospitals if new wave comes. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Although Switzerland relaxed a number of coronavirus rules from June 26th and 28th, “the pandemic is not over”, as Health Minister Alain Berset said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Berset said Switzerland should not become complacent, with last summer a warning against feeling that the battle is won. 

He added, however, that the new wave is unlikely to be as large as the previous ones due to the country’s vaccination campaign.

This situation leaves a degree of uncertainty for which the government wants to be prepared as well as possible, Berset noted.

The Federal Council established a “just-in-case” procedure on Wednesday for three possible scenarios that could take place in the autumn and winter. 

These plans focus mainly on the rapid detection of variants and the continuation of vaccination, testing, and tracing.

The best-case scenario: status quo

In this scenario, the number of cases remains at a low level, though small outbreaks are still possible.

The number of infections may increase slightly due to seasonal factors — the virus is known to spread slower in summer and faster in autumn and winter—  but does not place a significant burden on the health system.

If this happens, no measures beyond those already in place would be necessary.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is Switzerland lifting its Covid-19 restrictions too quickly?

Not so good: more contaminations

In this second scenario, there is an increase in the number of cases in autumn or winter.

There may be several reasons for this, for example the large proportion of unvaccinated people, seasonal effects — people tend to stay indoors together in cold weather, and contaminations are easier — or the appearance of new, more infectious variants.

This situation could overburden the health system and require the reintroduction of certain measures, such as the obligation to wear a mask outdoors.

Booster vaccinations may also be necessary.

The worst: new virus mutations

In scenario three, one or more new variants appear, against which the vaccine or the post-recovery immunity are less effective or no longer effective.

A new wave of pandemic emerges, requiring strong intervention by the public authorities and a new vaccination.

Which of the three scenarios is most likely to happen?

The government hasn’t said, but judging by the comments of health officials, the latter two are the strongest contenders.

Firstly, because the highly contagious Delta mutation, which is spreading quickly through many countries, is expected to be dominant in Switzerland within a few weeks.

It is expected that the virus will spread mostly to those who are not vaccinated and, to a lesser degree, to people who have only had one shot of the vaccine, according to Andreas Cerny, epidemiologist at the University of Bern

READ MORE: How Switzerland plans to contain the Delta variant

Another concern is related to the appearance of the new variants which could be as or possibly even more contagious than Delta and not as responsive to the current vaccines.

The government said the best chance of avoiding the second or third scenarios is to ensure people are vaccinated. 

“Widespread vaccination of the population is crucial to relieve the burden on the healthcare system and to manage the epidemic. A possible increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the autumn will largely depend on the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated,” the government wrote in a press statement.

The government has also indicating it is preparing for booster vaccinations to take place in 2022 and are encouraging cantons to keep their vaccine infrastructures in place.