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REACTION: Explaining the controversy over Switzerland’s referendum 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
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.

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.

Pesticides

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?


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  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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