ANALYSIS: What we learned from Switzerland’s autumn referendums

On Sunday, Switzerland went to the polls to decide on five major questions. Here are six surprise takeaways from Switzerland’s September 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

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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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.