The Olympic flame was extinguished in canton Graubünden before it was even lit. In February, a majority of voters rejected a proposal to host the Winter Games in 2026 – the second time in four years. The local campaign, led by the cantonal government, appears to have backfired.
Knowing that locals had turned down a bid project for the 2022 Games in 2013, the cantonal government’s ambitious plan to host the 2026 in St Moritz and Davos was always going to be an uphill battle. The authorities gave the new project their full support – this time perhaps too much.
This was one of the most likely explanations for voters’ recent slap in the executive’s face, as several people recently confirmed to swissinfo.ch in sunny Chur, the Graubünden capital.
"The government’s pro-campaign went too far," said one man, who voted ‘No’.
"It really was all about coercion," said a local woman. Another commented: "There was simply too much pressure exerted."
According to Andreas Glaser, professor of public law at the University of Zurich and director of the Centre for Democracy Studies in Aargau, the Olympic vote raises three important points.
“The cantonal government dealt with this vote differently than other issues which the state has supported in the past,” he said. “If the government were that aggressive on every vote issue, then people might have accepted it. But the Olympic vote was given a disproportionate importance.”
This excessive commitment to the project was demonstrated by a roundtable conference attended by all five members of the cantonal government; but no opponents were invited.
This was extraordinary, said Glaser: “In such a case people cannot form their own true opinion.”
A third criticism came following the late publication of voting materials and information for the general public. Just ahead of the vote, the cantonal parliament was unclear of the exact content of the Olympic project, such as where the competitions would take place and where Olympic villages would be located.
“This was inexplicable and not a correct thing to do from a democratic perspective,” said Jon Pult, a centre-left cantonal parliamentarian and a critic of the project.”
It was only one month before the vote that the Olympic plans were published, and came after two public information requests were filed in line with a cantonal transparency law.
‘A question of principle’
Jon Domenic Parolini, head of the cantonal economics department, who was in charge of the Olympic project, rejects these accusations.
"All the information needed for the vote was public. In the first phase we wanted to focus on the question of principle," he said. Namely, whether citizens wanted to hold the Winter Olympics in the canton or not.
Only at a later stage would the detailed plan be discussed. According to Parolini, “this two-step approach was based on very democratic notions.” The government wanted to get people’s opinion before investing millions in a detailed plan which no one wanted,” said the director.
He added that one of the reasons for the secrecy was the joint proposal “Sion 2026: The games in the heart of Switzerland”, comprising cantons Valais, Vaud, Bern and Fribourg, which was also being prepared at the time.
"We did not want to disclose our carefully prepared information to our competitors,” he said. The deadline for announcing a Swiss bid for the 2026 Winter Games was mid-December. From that moment on, the projects could not be changed.
“At that time I intended to publish the plans. That was before the two public information requests were filed,” said Parolini.
He rejected criticism of the government’s ‘excessive’ Olympic enthusiasm and support: “We invested a great deal of time and energy because we saw great opportunities for Graubünden.”
It was logical and not unusual that the government were united at the round table, he added.
“The government presented itself as one at similar events. The moderator and members of the public played the role of critics with their questions,” he said. Government ministers have also taken part in various public debates, he went on.
Describing its support as ‘excessive’ is just individual opinion, he declared: “I didn’t find it disproportionate. We remain in constant discussion with voters. Citizens have now expressed their opinion on this issue, which we fully accept.”
Glaser commented: “Popular votes typically act as a corrective measure and prevent time and money being invested in projects that are not widely accepted by the population.”
The Zurich professor said the result shows that “democratic decisions are possible that are contrary to ideas that have received wide coverage and benefit from support from economic interest groups.”
But he said it also raises a problem. “The notion of democratic representatives did not really function properly,” he said. Voters obviously did not feel they were represented by the people they had elected to government and parliament, as parliamentarians accepted the project with a big majority and the government strongly backed it throughout.
What is the cause of this rift?
“It’s perhaps linked to the election of parliament via a majority voting system,” said Glaser. The system in Graubünden has been repeatedly criticized over the years as it can distort voting powers and leaves small parties little chance of gaining a parliamentary seat.
On March 7 the Swiss Olympic committee's executive board voted to back Sion's bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics.
The joint proposal - “Sion 2026: The games in the heart of Switzerland” – comprising cantons Valais, Vaud, Bern and Fribourg was selected as the Swiss bid for the Winter Games.
However, there are still several major hurdles to cross. Swiss Olympic’s Extraordinary Assembly must decide on April 11 whether to move forward with the bid. The organisation must then convince the Swiss government and prepare a feasibility study.
Referendums may also be held in the respective cantons, with the issue of the financing likely to take centre stage.
If it goes ahead, Switzerland must submit its official candidacy to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in spring 2018 before a final vote on the host city takes place in summer 2019. Other potential bidders are currently Innsbruck, Austria and Calgary, Canada.
Sion was the only Swiss option after voters in canton Graubünden last month rejected a possible bid by St Moritz and Davos. This was the second such refusal in recent years. In 2013, voters in Graubünden decided against a bid for the 2022 Winter Games.
Switzerland hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 1928 and 1948. Since then, it has submitted numerous unsuccessful bids, with Sion losing out three times: 1976, 2002 and 2006.
Translated from German by Simon Bradley