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REACTION: Explaining the controversy over Switzerland’s referendum results

Switzerland’s voters weighed in on Sunday on a series of hot-button topics, several of which stirred controversy among the population. Here’s an overview of what was at stake and how various political groups reacted to the results.

REACTION: Explaining the controversy over Switzerland's referendum results
The use of pesticides in Swiss farming will continue to be allowed. Photo by PATRICK PLEUL / DPA / AFP

Among the most divisive ones were the future of the Covid-19 Act, the initiative to end the use of certain pesticides in agriculture, the new measures to fight terrorism, and the CO2 law.

Here are each of the topics – and why they have caused controversy in Switzerland. 

Covid-19 Act

This law, implemented in September 2020, grants the government 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.

However, a group which calls itself “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”.

On Sunday, 60.2 percent of voters approved the existing legislation, a result welcomed by parties on all sides of the political spectrum.

“This is proof that the population trusts the government’s commitment to health protection and effective support to the economy”, the Green party said.

Likewise, the Center praised the fact that “the voters are clearly in favour of solidarity and cohesion in this crisis situation.”

MP Philipp Bauer from the Liberal Party also noted that the Swiss have voted “wisely and effectively in favour of this economic legislation designed to support those who need it.”

Not surprisingly, Friends of the Constitution were disappointed with the outcome, saying that “the lies and the disinformation campaign of the Federal Council, have met with partial success”.

Their co-president Werner Boxler vowed “to continue the struggle to restore the sovereignty of the people” by joining another anti-Covid law group, the youth section of the rightwing Swiss People Party, in re-launching a referendum to repeal the law.

READ MORE:  Referendum result: Swiss snub pesticide ban but welcome anti-terror law

Anti-terrorism law

The new legislation would grant sweeping new powers to police to prevent future attacks against Switzerland.

After the deadly terror attacks in neighbouring France in 2015, Bern produced a new law allowing police to take preventative action more easily when faced with a “potential terrorist”.

Even though the legislation drew criticism from Amnesty International and leftist politicians for potentially violating the rights of innocent people, 56.6 percent of voters approved the law on Sunday.

This is a sign that “Switzerland’s population wants their freedom be protected and the law allows it to be done”, according to Karin Keller-Sutter, head of Federal Department of Justice and Police. 

However, Green MP Mathias Zopfi said that “these new police measures seriously jeopardise the presumption of innocence”, a view shared by Amnesty International Switzerland. 

“With this law, ‘political intent’ will be considered as terrorism, even if no threat of a violent act is established, nor any criminal offense committed”, the group said in a statement.


The initiative “For a Switzerland free of synthetic pesticides” called for the ban on these products in agriculture, in the public sphere, and would also apply to imports of products from abroad.

Supporters, headed by a winegrower and a soil biology professor from Neuchatel University, argued that artificial products lead to serious health problems and reduce biodiversity.

Peasants across Switzerland have mobilised massively against the initiative that would drastically reduce their ability to farm their lands. The effort paid off, as over 60 percent of voters rejected the initiative.

“This was a victory of common sense”, Prométerre, an agricultural  group in canton Vaud said in a statement.

“Despite certain tensions, the good side of this campaign is that the peasant world got involved, that peasant families were able to explain how they worked”, said the group’s spokesperson, Grégoire Nappey.

“This campaign also showed that there were expectations among the population for healthier products, and it generated a dialogue and trust”, he added.

But Ursula Schneider-Schüttel, president of an environmental group Pro Natura, said she is disappointed at not having succeeded in spreading the idea of ​​greener agriculture.

 “Nature conservation communities need the support of farmers and they also depend on nature and a healthy environment to sustainably practice their profession”, she said in an interview.

CO2 law

CO2 is a chemical formula for carbon dioxide which, when released into the atmosphere over an extended period of time, contributes to climate change.

In September 2020, the Swiss parliament passed the so-called CO2 law, which aims to achieve the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement by halving Switzerland’s CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to 1990.

Its ultimate goal is to no longer emit any greenhouse gases by 2050 — the so-called ‘net zero target’.

However, opponents of the law, including auto and petrol industry, and other groups, have brought about a referendum to repeal the legislation, arguing that costs of goods and services ranging from plane tickets to heating oil would go up if the legislation were to be enacted.

This argument has convinced a narrow majority of voters – 56.1 percent – who rejected the law.

This outcome means that “the economic opportunities that would have resulted from the CO2 law can now only be seized under very difficult conditions”, according to a pro-legislation group, the Swiss Economic Committee.

Swiss People’s Party, however, the only one to urge the ‘no’ vote, called the result a “resounding success”.

 But the Swiss media commented that in rejecting this law aimed at curbing greenhouse emissions, the Swiss “chose to listen to their wallets.”

“Voters are thinking more in terms of the end of the month than the end of the world”, one newspaper said, referring to the bills people have to pay monthly.

Another issue in the ballot box on Sunday was the “The Clean Drinking Water Initiative”, which called for subsidies be allocated only to agricultural practices that do not harm the environment and do not pollute drinking water.

It was refused by over 60.7 percent of voters.

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

Member comments

  1. For future reference “peasant” has a negative connotation. I suppose that was an unfortunate translation from another language. I would have said “farmer”.

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UPDATE: Swiss voters say big ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage

With results in from almost all of Switzerland's 23 cantons, the Swiss population has backed the legalisation of same-sex marriage via a referendum.

UPDATE: Swiss voters say big 'yes' to same-sex marriage
(Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Nearly two-thirds of Swiss voters backed the government’s plan to introduce same-sex marriage in a referendum held Sunday, with campaigners calling it a historic day for gay rights in Switzerland.

With results in from 20 of the wealthy Alpine nation’s 23 cantons, 64 percent of voters backed the move, on a 52 percent turnout.

Switzerland was one of the last countries in western Europe where same-sex marriage remained illegal.

The government’s “marriage for all” proposals were challenged by opponents, who successfully triggered a referendum.

“The Swiss have dropped a massive ‘yes’ into the ballot box,” Olga Baranova, a spokeswoman for the “yes” committee, told AFP.

She was at a restaurant in the Swiss capital Bern hosting the “yes” campaign’s celebrations — decked out in balloons in the rainbow colours — where drag artist Mona Gamie sang Edith Piaf’s “Hymn to Love” to rapturous applause.

“Today does not change my country,” Baranova said.

“Today reflects the change of mentality over the last 20 years. It is really the reflection of a very broad and very important acceptance of LGBT people in society.”

Lengthy battle

Switzerland decriminalised homosexuality in 1942, but numerous local and regional police forces continued to keep “gay registers”, some into the early 1990s.

Same-sex couples can already register a civil partnership, with around 700 established each year.

However, this status does not provide the same rights as marriage, including for obtaining citizenship and the joint adoption of children.

READ MORE: ‘Deviance and morality’: The history of the same-sex marriage movement in Switzerland

After years of debate and discussion, the Swiss parliament approved a bill last December allowing same-sex couples to marry in the country of 8.6 million people.

But it was challenged under Switzerland’s direct democracy system, with opponents gathering the 50,000 signatures needed to put the issue to a referendum.

(Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Deborah Heanni, a member of the Libero collective which campaigned for “yes”, told AFP: “After eight years of campaigning, we are happy finally to be able to celebrate this victory.”

Jan Muller of the “yes” committee said: “It is a historic day for Switzerland, a historic day when it comes to equality for same-sex couples, and it is also an important day for the whole LGBT community.”

The law change will allow same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies and provide them with the same rights as those enjoyed by other married couples.

Foreign spouses will become eligible to apply for citizenship through a simplified procedure, and same-sex couples will be permitted to jointly adopt.

And, in what proved the most controversial aspect of the referendum campaign, lesbian couples will have access to sperm donations.

‘Babies on demand’

The right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) — Switzerland’s largest political party — called for a “no” vote.

Opponents plastered Swiss cities with stark posters decrying the commodification of children and warning the law will “kill the father”.

One poster showed a crying baby with its ear tagged like cattle, and the question: “Babies on demand?”

Another featured a huge zombie-like head meant to represent a dead father.

“Everyone will be disappointed,” Yohan Ziehli, vice president of the SVP in the French-speaking Vaud canton in western Switzerland.

(Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

“Parliament made the tactical choice to link two subjects that should not have been, namely the question of parentage which has been hidden behind the shield of marriage for all in order to guarantee its success,” he told broadcaster RTS.

READ MORE: Swiss Protestant church supports gay marriage

A second vote was held alongside the referendum, on an initiative brought forward by the youth wing of the Socialist Party, titled “Reduce taxes on wages, tax capital equitably”.

Proponents of the so-called “99 percent” initiative wanted greater taxation on high levels of capital income, with the revenues generated used to reduce income taxes for the less well off.

Results so far showed that 65 percent voted against the measure.