Direct democracy in Switzerland: Yes to the army, vaccinations, and petrol station shops

by Joshua Tucker on September 23, 2013 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Comparative Politics,Election Reports

Germany wasn’t the only country holding elections in Central Europe this weekend.  Swiss voters went to the polls for a number of referenda on Sunday, and we are pleased to continue our series of election reports with the following post-election report from political scientists Thomas Milic and Sean Mueller, both at the Institute of Political Science, University of Berne.

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On 22 September 2013 the Swiss electorate, in its quarterly power of highest law-breaker and constitution-maker of the land, was once more called to the polls to answer three specific questions. First, whether the mandatory conscription service for all Swiss men should be deleted from the Federal Constitution and be replaced with the mere option to serve in the Swiss military for men and women alike; second, whether to approve a new law on vaccinations in times of epidemics; and third, whether to approve the modification of a single article in the Labour Code, thus enabling petrol station shops along busy roads to remain open also during the night. As had been widely expected, Swiss voters rejected the popular initiative launched by the Group for a Switzerland without an Army (GSOA), thereby confirming the existing conscription system, and equally approved of the two legislative reforms. What remains however interesting for political scientists to observe is the wide sub-national discrepancy in approval/rejection rates, the different constellations across the three questions, and the result of various cantonal and communal votes.

An overwhelming yes to the army, but not equally strong throughout Switzerland

In Switzerland, modifications of the Federal Constitution (the term “amendment” is misleading since changes are not attached, but rather directly incorporated in the written document) need to be approved by a majority of people and also a majority of Swiss cantons, whereby the vote of a canton is determined by the way its people decide. From the outset, this was thought to be an extraordinary obstacle for the popular initiative on partial constitutional change – of all the 184 popular initiatives voted upon between 1848 and March 2013, only 20 (11%) had been approved (swissvotes.ch and own calculations). Proposals reforming or even abolishing the Swiss army in particular have had a tough stand. This time around, too, an overwhelming majority of 73.2% Swiss citizens voted against the proposal, with quite a respectable turnout of 46.4% (the average turnout between 1990 and 2010 being 44.1%; State Chancellery). Although none of the 23 cantons approved, there are still notable discrepancies as regards the degree of approval of the status quo. Rejection of the initiative, in other words, has reached top-levels of more than 80% in seven cantons, with Uri at the top of the list with 85%. At the other end, in three cantons “only” some 60% voted no, with canton Geneva, at 57.8%, forming the other end of the continuum. To sum it up, rejection was particularly strong in cantons where the left parties are weak and in rural regions, where the number of people actually doing their military service is higher and where the compulsory military service is not regarded as a disadvantage in the labour market (Figure 1; from Tages-Anzeiger).

figure1

Shop opening hours and state vaccinations: the rural-urban cleavage

The other two questions to be decided at national level both concerned legislative reforms against which a referendum (that is a petition signed by at least 50,000 citizens) had been launched. Although both rather detailed items to be decided, at least the campaign on extending the opening hours of petrol station shops was marked by an interesting alliance of left-wing trade-unions and religious groups, on the one hand, and liberal and business interests, on the other. For the former, although the reform concerned merely 24 shops throughout Switzerland (Figure 2; from Der Bund), the issue really was about protection of workers from having to work all night and family values at risk in a so-called “24-hours society”. The latter, however, saw in the existing regulation a “bureaucratic monster” – the 24 petrol stations in question could already remain open all night, but had to close off their shopping areas between 1am and 5am. The result was accordingly a rather narrow victory of the liberalisation camp, with 55.8% voting in favour of the reform (turnout: 45.8%). This time, however, the less well-off cantons of Valais, Uri and Jura plus Fribourg and Neuchatel voted against the overall trend; the people of Jura even by a 65.3%-strong majority.

Eidg-Abstim_Kantone 2-sp

A similarly small, rather rural but essentially conservative and German-speaking minority can be detected in the vote on the new epidemics law, where two full (Schwyz and again Uri) and two half-cantons (Appenzell Inner- and Appenzell Outer-Rhodes) voted against. Although overall 60% of the Swiss electorate approved, securing government and parliament its third victory out of three that day, opposition to the new law is best explained using a mixture of political culture and ideology: a simple linear regression model with the share of German-speakers, the strength of left-wing parties in the cantonal parliament (mean for 2010 and 2011) and GDP per capita (2011) yields an overall fit of R2 = 0.776 (p < 0.001) (Figure 3).

figure3

Other cantonal and local votes

In addition, the Swiss people voted on some rather controversial cantonal and local issues. The most eye-popping result comes from Ticino – the only Italian-speaking canton in Switzerland. There, the voters approved a ban on face covering headgear in public places – a law that, in practice, was issued with the intention to ban burkas. Besides that, a lot of other votes took place on a wide range of issues, such as for example the right of non-Swiss residents in Canton Zurich to vote at communal level (not approved); a football stadium in Switzerland’s largest city, Zurich (not approved); a car-free zone in the touristic city of Lucerne (approved); or a “zone for alternative living” in the capital city, Berne (approved). All in all, an eventful but hardly revolutionary day for political Switzerland.

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