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

On September 26th, voters in Switzerland will weigh in on two controversial issues. This is what’s at stake.

EXPLAINED:  What's at stake in Switzerland's September referendum?
Switzerland will vote on same-sex marriage this September. Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

In the third round of national voting so far this year (the fourth one is scheduled for November 28th), Swiss voters will decide on the outcome of two contentious issues: ‘Equal Marriage for All’ and ‘Reduce tax on salaries, tax capital fairly’.

Same-sex marriage

At present, same-sex marriage is forbidden in Switzerland, with only civil partnerships allowed. 

While those in a registered partnership have many of the same rights as same-sex marriages, including the right to the partner’s inheritance and pension, they can’t adopt a child together or have access to sperm donations.

In December 2020, the parliament passed a bill which would give same-sex couples the same rights and obligations under the law as those extended to same-sex marriages.

READ MORE: Broad support for same-sex marriage ahead of referendum

As the Federal Council explains it, “Under the amended law, same-sex couples would be able to have a civil wedding and would be placed on an equal footing with other married couples both institutionally and legally. The foreign husband of a Swiss man and the foreign wife of a Swiss woman would be able to apply for simplified naturalisation, for example. Same-sex couples would also be able to adopt a child together. In addition, married female couples would have access to legally regulated sperm donation. Registered partnerships could be converted into a marriage, but no longer entered into anew”.

In supporting the Federal Council’s case, Justice Minister Keller-Sutter said that “the state should not dictate to people how they have to organise their private and family life.”

READ MORE: Swiss government indicates support for same-sex marriage as referendum date set

However, opponents —mainly the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and conservative Christian groups — collected 50,000 signatures necessary to launch a referendum.

They argue that “marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Calling into question this founding principle of the family, the basic unit of our society, is a real revolution; it is to touch the Christian foundations of our civilisation, but also and above all the natural order”.

‘Marriage for All’ can only become law if the referendum is rejected by the voters on September 26th.

Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

‘Reduce tax on salaries, tax capital fairly’

This popular initiative, also called ‘The 99-percent initiative’ was launched by the Socialist Youth group, which seeks to force wealthy people to pay 150 percent more tax on their capital income and redistribute this money to the rest of the population.

The 99-percent refers to the population at large, while the remaining 1 percent are the super-rich who, according to the youth arm of the socialist party, derive all their income from their financial assets and don’t share enough of it with others.

Such a system would bring in an additional five to ten billion francs to Swiss government coffers, says the youth party, which could allow the government to reduce taxes for those on low or middle incomes, or offer them other benefits such as exemption from health insurance premiums or free childcare. 

Business and economic circles, along with most parties, urge voters to reject the initiative, as does the government.

“Today, in principle, all income such as wages, pensions and capital income is taxed in full”, the Federal Council said.

“These income taxes help to mitigate inequalities in the distribution of income within the population. People with high incomes therefore pay more in percentage terms than those with low incomes. In addition to taxes, there are other instruments for redistribution. Most redistribution takes place through social benefits such as pensions or social assistance”, it added.

READ MORE: Are you being underpaid in Switzerland? Here’s how to find out

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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.