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Why is Switzerland holding a referendum on purchasing fighter jets?

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
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.
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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