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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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REFERENDUM

Swiss back ‘Netflix’ law and steer clear of ‘Frontexit’

Swiss voters on Sunday backed making streaming services pay to boost Swiss film-making, and funding the expansion of Europe's Frontex border agency, thereby avoiding another row with Brussels, according to projected results.

Swiss back 'Netflix' law and steer clear of 'Frontexit'

Market researchers GFS Bern, who conducted the main polling throughout the campaign, projected that 58 percent of voters backed the so-called “Lex Netflix”.

They said 72 percent backed Switzerland joining the planned ramping up of Frontex, providing more money and staff to protect the continent’s Schengen open-borders zone.

And 59 percent approved a law change that would automatically register individuals as organ donors after death, unless they opt out.

Under the wealthy Alpine nation’s direct democracy system, voters are called to the polls four times a year to decide on specific topics, according to popular demand.

The polls closed at midday (1000 GMT), with most ballots having already been sent in by post over the past four weeks.

The results are due later Sunday, with each of the Swiss confederation’s 26 cantons reporting their results in turn.

Lex Netflix
The “Lex Netflix” vote approves an amendment to the Film Production Act adopted by parliament last October.

Since 2007, domestic television broadcasters have been obliged to invest four percent of their turnover in Swiss film-making.

The amendment was brought forward to reflect the dramatic shift in how audio-visual content is now consumed, with global streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+ and Blue now making hundreds of millions of dollars in
Switzerland each year.

Streaming services will now have to submit to the four-percent rule.

Swiss cinema production pulls in around 105 million Swiss francs ($106 million, 101 million euros) a year, according to the culture ministry — but could now be in line for an additional 18 million francs.

The platforms will also be required to ensure that European-made films or series make up at least 30 percent of the content available in Switzerland, as in the neighbouring European Union.

Right-leaning opponents had collected enough signatures to take the change to a referendum.

Transplant laws
The vote on changing the organ donation laws will see everyone become a potential donor after death unless they have expressly opted out.

Up to now, transplants were only possible if the donor clearly consented before they died.

The government and parliament wanted to change the law to a “presumed consent” model — as used in a number of other European countries.

Relatives will still have the right of refusal if they suspected that the deceased would not have wanted to be an organ donor.

A group of opponents, backed by the populist and religious right, gathered enough signatures to force a referendum.

At the end of 2021, more than 1,400 patients were awaiting transplant organs in Switzerland, a country of around 8.6 million people. 

But 72 people died last year while on the waiting list, according to the Swisstransplant organisation.

Frontexit averted
Ties between Brussels and Bern have been strained since May 2021 when non-EU Switzerland suddenly decided to end years of discussion towards a broad cooperation agreement with the bloc.

The clear support for Frontex has avoided aggravating the stand-off.

Under Europe’s expansion plan, Frontex will have a permanent contingent of 10,000 border guards and coast guards.

Switzerland will nearly triple its financial contribution to Frontex to 61 million Swiss francs ($61 million, 58 million euros) annually, and increase its personnel contribution from six people to around 40.

Migrant support organisations, backed by left-leaning political parties, collected enough signatures to force a referendum.

The government warned voters that if they rejected the expansion, Switzerland risked automatic exclusion from the Schengen area.

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