ANALYSIS: What we learned from Switzerland’s autumn referendums

ANALYSIS: What we learned from Switzerland’s autumn referendums
A poster from the SVP supporting the migration limitation initiative saying 'too much is too much' in French. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
On Sunday, Switzerland went to the polls to decide on five major questions. Here are six surprise takeaways from Switzerland’s September referendums.

Switzerland went to the polls on September 27th to vote on five separate initiatives. 

Three of the initiatives – EU migration, tax deduction and animal protection – were originally scheduled for May but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Two others – on the questions of paternity leave and new fighter jets – were added in recent months.

Here are six things we learned from the Alpine nation’s latest direct democracy efforts. 

The Swiss left continues to surge

The story of the 2019 Swiss federal election was a surge in left-wing support, which benefited the Green party

This continued in 2020’s referendums, with the Green Liberals winning each vote they supported. The Greens and Social Democrats also had reason to smile after the vote.

Two initiatives launched from parties on the left passed, while a further one on fighter jets only failed narrowly. 

As reported in Swiss daily Watson “The vote Sunday confirmed the party-political shifts of the last federal elections a year ago… The left is a referendum power”. 

Fighter jets goes down to the wire

In the lead up to the vote, polling indicated that the purchase of fighter jets worth a cool CHF6 billion was likely to be approved by around two thirds of the public. 

It was surprising then, when the initiative passed with only 50.1 percent of the vote. 

The campaign was opposed by women and younger people, both of whom turned out in higher numbers than usual. 

READ: Why is Switzerland holding a referendum on purchasing fighter jets? 

Swiss media reports that a surge in women and younger people was largely responsible for the leftward tinge in Swiss contemporary politics, with women opposing the fighter jet initiative 55-45. 

The majority of voters under 34 also opposed the fighter jet vote

In a poll conducted by Swiss media, the Swiss were a little more decisive on where they didn’t want to buy the jets from – with voters overwhelmingly rejecting buying US-made fighter jets

Just over half – 50.1 percent – of Swiss voters supported the initiative on fighter jets. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Coronavirus didn’t change the outcome – or at least that’s what people say

Before the referendum, there were worries that uncertainty surrounding the pandemic – along with a rise in Swiss nationalist sentiment – may tip the vote. 

Voters did not share this opinion, with 89 percent saying the pandemic did not influence they way they were set to vote. 

Experts however disagreed, particularly with regard to the migration limitation initiative. 

Ticino political expert Oscar Mazzoleni told the NZZ that the pandemic reinforced the importance of cross-border workers to Switzerland – and to the southern canton of Ticino in particular. 

Ticino was one of four cantons to vote in favour of the initiative, although the level of support was lower than predicted before the vote. 

Mazzoleni said the findings showed how reliant Ticino when it comes to cross-border workers, particularly in the health and service sector.

Mazzoleini added that the management of the pandemic saw Bern gain popularity among voters in Ticino, particularly the way in which the government handled Switzerland’s borders. 

READ: Which parts of Switzerland supported the referendum to limit EU migration? 


Childcare tax defeated

One major surprise – and a consequence of the leftward turn in Swiss politics – was the defeat of the childcare tax initiative. 

While pre-election polling showed narrow support for the tax, it was overwhelmingly defeated on Sunday. 

Gaining 63.2 percent of the vote, the initiative was soundly rejected – in what Swiss media described as a “surprise win” for the coalition of centre-left parties who opposed it. 

Beat Jans, Vice President of the centre-left Social Democrats (SP), said that the result shows the population “no longer swallows tax cuts for the rich”. 

READ MORE: The real cost of parenting in Switzerland and how to save money

Top turnout despite the pandemic

Voter participation Sunday ticked in at nearly 59 percent, which is exceptionally high in a country where it is rare to see more than 50 percent of voters turn out for the frequent popular polls.

Only a handful of votes have attracted more than 60 percent of the population since 1980. 

Turnout was highest in the small canton of Schaffhausen (70 percent), hardly a surprise when the canton has compulsory voting. 

Participation was also high in Obwalden and Nidwalden, where 66 percent of voters turned out

The Röstigraben is alive and well – as is the urban-rural divide 

While a rise in left-wing support may be a new feature in Swiss politics, not everything changed. 

The referendums showed how detached Switzerland’s linguistic regions are from each other – particularly the French-speaking parts of the country. 

Vaud voted for the paternity leave vote by 81.6 percent (60 percent nationally). 

The hunting vote was particularly divisive, with Swiss news outlet Le Temps saying it was “the mountains against the plateau”. 

The hunting initiative got around 30 percent support in mountainous regions, but had more than 70 percent in the city’s urban areas. 

Voters in Vaud, Geneva and Neuchâtel were particularly strong in their rejection of the migration limitation initiative. 

In total, 71 percent of Neuchâtel and Vaud voters rejected the initiative, along with 69 percent of voters in Geneva. 

Voters in Basel City were however the most strongly opposed to limiting migration, with almost three in four (74.6 percent) of voters rejecting it. 

Two thirds (65.7 percent) of voters in Switzerland's largest canton – Zurich – also indicated their opposition. 

As reported on the Monday after the vote in Watson, in Switzerland “now the cities and women decide”.


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