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EXPLAINED: What was on the ballot in Switzerland’s first ever referendum?

As Swiss voters are set to head to the polls on February 13th, you may be wondering when this tradition had started — and what issue was at stake the first time around.

Switzerland's railway system was the subject of the country's first referendum in 1898. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Switzerland's railway system was the subject of the country's first referendum in 1898. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Whether the issues in question are controversial or perfunctory, voting in Switzerland is an integral and important part of the country’s political process and its unique brand of direct democracy.

The Swiss typically vote four times a year — more often than any other country – with several questions on the ballot on each occasion.

It is such a commonplace occurrence in Switzerland that many people don’t even give this democratic process a second thought.

In fact, many may not even know in which year the citizens of Switzerland cast their first ballots, and what issue had to be decided on at the time.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

Even though some forms of direct democracy were practiced in parts of the country since the 14th century, popular initiatives were introduced at the federal level in 1848, the year Switzerland became a state.

But the system of initiatives and referendums didn’t go into effect automatically as soon as the new state was formed — it took several decades before that happened.

Why?

According to an article on the website of the Swiss National Museum (SNM), “in principle, this type of ‘intervention’ was not envisaged either under Swiss law, or in the ideas of those in power in Parliament”.

However, after many debates among MPs about how to revise the constitution and drive political change in general, “the logical outcome was the introduction of popular initiatives”, SNM wrote.

Early initiatives laid foundation to voting as we know it today. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Early initiatives laid foundation for voting as we know it today. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

When was the first popular initiative created?

A legislation that went into effect in Switzerland in 2018 outlawed the boiling of live lobsters before knocking them out first. But the concern for animal welfare is not a new notion — the first proposal brought up for vote nearly 130 years ago focused on this very issue.

In May 1892, almost 90,000 men (as women would have no right to vote for another 79 years) signed a petition demanding that the slaughter of animals without prior stunning be banned.

But the issue was not as straight-forward as it seemed: “The move was more than just a matter of animal rights; it also had anti-Semitic undercurrents”, SNM wrote.

That’s because killing of animals without knocking them out first was practiced mainly by Jewish kosher butchers.

In the end, the proposal was accepted by 60 percent of Swiss voters (again, men only) in 1893 — the only initiative to be approved until 1908, the year when the ban on absinthe was approved.

The latter vote came after a winegrower in a Swiss village of Commugny reportedly downed two glasses of absinthe (along with other alcoholic beverages) and murdered his entire family.

This incident in 1905 served not only to outlaw absinthe — a potent plant-based drink created in Neuchâtel — in Switzerland, but also led to the worldwide prohibition that lasted for a century.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s ‘absinthe murders’ saw the drink globally banned for a century

“Over 480 popular initiatives were proposed between 1893 and today”, SNM said.

“Many of them were rejected or withdrawn. But most of these initiatives have still had some effect anyway, because the voice of the people could not and cannot be ignored”.

What about the first referendum?

As a reminder, initiatives and referendums are different.

In simple terms, an initiative is put forward by citizens seeking to pass a new legislation, while existing laws can be challenged by the public in a referendum.

The first Swiss referendum was held 124 years ago, almost to a day: on February 20th, 1898.

It sought to nationalise the railroads, a move that was approved by nearly 68 percent of voters. This has paved the way to the creation, in 1902, of Swiss Federal Railways.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

EXPLAINED: How to find cheap train tickets in Switzerland

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SWISS REFERENDUM

Swiss vote on ‘Netflix’ law, organ donations and Frontex

Switzerland votes on Sunday on whether streaming services should cough up money to boost Swiss film-making -- and whether everyone should automatically become an organ donor unless they say otherwise.

Swiss vote on 'Netflix' law, organ donations and Frontex

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.

Besides streaming services and organ donation, the Swiss are voting on whether to join in the planned expansion of the European border agency Frontex, providing more money and staff to protect the continent’s Schengen
open-borders zone.

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

Vote projections should come within an hour, with the results due later Sunday.

Lex Netflix
The so-called “Lex Netflix” vote is on 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 law change is intended to catch up with the dramatic shift in how audiovisual content is now consumed, with global streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+ and Blue now making hundreds of millions of dollars in
Switzerland each year.

Furthermore, the platforms will 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 collected enough signatures to take the change to a referendum.

If the challenge fails, streaming services would have to submit to the four-percent rule.

The referendum looks set to pass by a narrow margin, according to recent opinion polls, although opposition has been growing.

READ ALSO: What is the ‘Netflix vote’ and how could it change TV in Switzerland?

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

Currently, transplants are only possible if the donor consented before they died.

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

Relatives would 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.

Polls show around 60 percent support changing the law.

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 in 2021 while on the waiting list, according to the Swisstransplant organisation.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Switzerland’s ‘organ donation’ vote means for you

Frontexit?
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 Frontex vote could add to the unease.

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

Switzerland would nearly triple its financial contribution to Frontex to 61 million Swiss francs ($61 million, 58 million euros) annually.

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

The government has warned if voters reject the expansion, Switzerland risks automatic exclusion from the Schengen area.

Opinion polls indicate 69 percent of Swiss voters back expanding Frontex.

In February, the Swiss voted to tighten their notoriously lax tobacco laws by banning virtually all advertising of the hazardous products.

Voters also rejected banning all animal testing, and providing additional state funding to media companies.

READ ALSO: Frontex: How Switzerland’s ‘border vote’ on May 15th could impact travel

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