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EXPLAINED: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid-19 referendum?

EXPLAINED: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid-19 referendum?
Swiss voters will head to the ballot box soon — again. Photo by Fabrica Coffrini / AFP
On June 13th, the Swiss will vote on several issues, including on whether to keep or repeal the controversial Covid legislation.

The Covid-19 Act was implemented in September 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which claimed many victims in Switzerland and caused a major downturn in the economy.

“The number of people becoming seriously ill rose quickly”, the government explains on its website.

 “The Federal Council took measures to protect the population and to support people and businesses suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic”.

Authorities also said they had to enact this emergency legislation, which is supposed to stay in effect until the end of 2021, because the already existing Epidemics Act “did not offer a statutory basis for all the measures required” to manage the pandemic.

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What does this law cover?

“The Act grants the Federal Council additional powers to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and above all to mitigate its negative effects on society and the economy”, the Federal Council said.

Among these “powers” is also the ability to curtail public life (for instance, by imposing various bans and restrictions), and to allow the government to invest in the production of medical treatments for coronavirus patients, as well as in the manufacture and distribution of the Covid vaccines.

The law also covers to a broad variety of measures aimed at combating the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the distribution — amounting to about 35 billion francs — of financial aid to hard-hit businesses and employees.

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Who is against this legislation, and why?

The association called “Friends of the Constitution” filed a referendum against  the Covid-19 Act, saying the legislation gives the authorities too much political power that is not necessary to manage the pandemic.

The association argues that the Act “deprives people of their rights”, and is “useless and dangerous”.

The group also claims the legislation would allow the introduction of a “compulsory system with poorly tested vaccines”, which has not been the case, as the vaccines are administered on voluntary basis.

“The success of the referendum would be a call on the authorities to exercise the utmost caution in the vaccination campaign and even impose a moratorium on it”, said the group’s spokesperson, Christoph Pfluger.

What would happen if the group’s proposal is accepted on June 13th?

Under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, where voters, and not politicians, have the power to create or challenge laws, the Federal Council would have to abide by the decision.

The law would however not expire immediately. Instead, it would expire on the 25th of September, i.e. one year on from its original passing. 

The referendum result would also not mean that the law was invalidated retrospectively. This means that if you have received a fine or have been forced to do something as a result of the law, this fine is not refundable and you are not able to challenge the law

The government would however not be allowed to pass another similar law under its emergency powers, for instance if the pandemic worsened. Instead, any legislative solution would have to be passed in the usual way. 

The main impact of the proposal being accepted is that financial support provided to people under the Act would be affected. 

As the Covid-19 Act makes it possible to continue distributing financial help to businesses and individuals, this funding could be curtailed.

“The most important of these are payments for short-time work, compensation for loss of income, assistance in cases of hardship, and support for cultural and sports organisations”, federal authorities said.

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