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TERRORISM

EXPLAINED: What’s at stake at this weekend’s referendum in Switzerland?

On Sunday, June 13th, the Swiss will have to weigh in on two initiatives and three referendums. From coronavirus lockdowns to terrorism, here are the issues at stake.

EXPLAINED: What's at stake at this weekend's referendum in Switzerland?
Switzerland goes to the polls on June 13th. Image: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Switzerland votes Sunday on a series of hot topics: anti-terror measures, Covid-19 laws and proposals to protect the environment through banning synthetic pesticides. 

Swiss voters must decide whether they approve a Covid-19 law that extends the government’s powers to fight the pandemic and mitigate its consequences on society and the economy.

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

But the two anti-pesticide proposals have triggered the most noise and fury, in an electoral campaign marked by fiery debates between farmers.

The first popular initiative, entitled “For a Switzerland free from synthetic pesticides”, calls for a domestic ban within 10 years, while imported foodstuffs produced using such pesticides would also be outlawed.

Under the second, “For clean drinking water and healthy food”, only farms that do not use pesticides and use antibiotics only to treat sick animals would be eligible for government subsidies.

The amount of liquid manure being used on fields, and thereby potentially entering the water system, would also be limited. Environmentalists and the political left back both initiatives.

The Swiss government wants a double “No” vote, arguing the proposals would undermine the country’s food sovereignty.

Though urban voters are largely in favour, and rural voters seem set to vote “No”, polls indicate that both proposals are likely to be rejected.

EXPLAINED: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s pesticide referendum?

Tight fight on CO2

Under Switzerland’s direct democracy system, referendums and popular votes occur every few months at national, regional and local levels.

Any idea from the public can be put to a national vote as long as it gathers 100,000 signatures in the wealthy nation of 8.6 million people.

Meanwhile, 50,000 signatures are needed to trigger a referendum on new laws agreed by parliament. Environmental protection is also at stake in a referendum on new carbon dioxide laws.

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s ‘CO2 referendum’ and how could it affect you?

The law would use tax policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 — including financial incentives to install charging points for electric vehicles and to market vehicles that consume less fuel.

It would also increase the tax on fuel oil and natural gas, as well as introduce a tax on outbound flight tickets.

The law’s opponents say the measures will be expensive and mainly affect people on low and middle incomes.

Polls suggest the outcome hangs in the balance. 

Terror and human rights 

A clear majority, however, is expected to back a new law on extending police powers to combat terrorism, despite warnings from the United Nations and Amnesty International.

The law allows the police to take preventative action more easily when faced with a “potential terrorist”.

Switzerland’s new ‘Guantanamo-style’ terrorism law draws international criticism

If police believe that someone over the age of 12 is contemplating violent actions, the law allows them to conduct greater surveillance, limit their movements and oblige them to face questioning.

And with a court order, they can also place anyone over the age of 15 under house arrest for up to nine months. Left-wing opponents of the law believe it endangers Switzerland’s human rights heritage.

The government says fundamental rights will be guaranteed and argues that de-radicalisation programmes are insufficient to keep Switzerland safe.

The landlocked Alpine country has so far been spared the large-scale attacks seen among its European neighbours.

The authorities nonetheless insist that the threat level is high, and have said two knife attacks in Switzerland last year likely had a “terrorist motivation”.

The publicly-triggered referendum on Covid-19 laws seems set to pass comfortably.

Any emergency measures introduced by the government — as with its moves to combat the pandemic — are time-limited and therefore need firming up if they are to continue.

The laws also regulate financial aid granted to individuals and businesses, including compensation for loss of income, and support for cultural organisations.

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TERRORISM

UPDATE: Woman jailed for nine years for knife attack on Swiss shoppers

In a rare case of alleged Islamist "terrorism" in Switzerland, a woman was jailed for nine years on Monday for the brutal knife attack on two shoppers at an upscale department store.

UPDATE: Woman jailed for nine years for knife attack on Swiss shoppers

A Swiss woman accused of slashing two people in the name of the Islamic State group in an upmarket shop
was sentenced on Monday to nine years prison coupled with psychiatric treatment.

The criminal court judges found the woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, guilty of two counts of attempted murder, and of violating the Swiss laws against association with Al-Qaeda, IS and related Islamist groups.

The woman, who has not been named, tried to slit the throats of two women shopping at the Manor store in Lugano, in Switzerland’s southern, Italian-speaking Ticino region on November 24, 2020.

The attacker, 28 at the time, was accused of committing a “jihadist knife attack” and had “intended to kill her victims and to commit a terrorist act on behalf of IS” (the Islamic State group), the attorney general’s office said earlier this year.

Random victims

On the day of the attack, the woman had gone to Manor’s kitchen supply division on the fifth floor, picked out a large bread knife and approached a random woman standing nearby.

Grabbing her from behind, the assailant plunged the knife at least 10 centimetres into her throat, missing her main carotid artery “by a few millimetres”, the court heard. 

As she screamed “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and “I will avenge the Prophet Mohammed”, she struck the victim to the ground, and then moved on to a second woman, stabbing the knife towards her face and shouting “I am here for
Isis”.

The second woman suffered defensive wounds to her right hand, but managed with help from others to overpower her attacker and hold her until police arrived.

“The suspect acted wilfully and with particular ruthlessness,” prosecutors said, maintaining that she had acted “with the aim of killing (her victims) and thereby spreading terror throughout the population on behalf of the ‘Islamic State’.”

Mental health problems

Police quickly discovered the alleged assailant had been linked to a 2017 jihadism investigation.

After “falling in love” over social media with a jihadist fighter in Syria, she had attempted in 2017 to travel to the war-torn country to meet him, but was stopped by Turkish authorities at the Syrian border and sent back to Switzerland, it is alleged.

Upon her return, she was deemed to have mental health problems. She was admitted to a psychiatric clinic and fell off the security police radar until the attack three years later, police said.

The assailant had reportedly once been married to a Muslim asylum seeker and had converted to Islam.

‘Very rare’

Experts said the trial marked a rare event, pointing out that such attacks are almost unheard of in the wealthy Alpine country.

Switzerland has never experienced a large-scale terror attack, though it did suffer two other individual knife attacks in 2020 by people with suspected jihadist ties.

“In Switzerland, it’s been very random and very rare that we have people that conduct terrorist attacks,” Christina Schori Liang, a terrorism expert at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told AFP.

It is even rarer that the alleged jihadist attacker is a woman.

“Isis has never claimed an attack carried out by a woman,” Damien Ferre, founder of the Jihad Analytics group which analyses global and cyber jihad, told AFP.

While there were reports of women carrying out attacks in the battle for Mosul in Iraq in 2004, he stressed that “it was never proven and the group did not communicate about it.”

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