A slim majority of voters said “No” when asked to approve a popular initiative on tax breaks for married couples.
What had seemed like a sure “Yes” in January became a close contest after an energetic “No” committee argued that the terms of the initiative would pose an obstacle for same-sex couples hoping to tie the knot someday. Final result: 49.2% in favour, and 50.8% against.
Pitched by the centrist Christian Democratic Party, the initiative “For marriage and family – against the marriage penalty” would have reduced the tax burden for married couples, who must file their taxes jointly rather than individually. This can mean a higher tax bill than they would have had as a cohabiting couple without the wedding rings.
Wording of the initiative
The initiative calls for the following addition to Art. 14 of the Swiss constitution on the right to marriage and the family: “Marriage consists of long-term cohabitation, under the framework of law, between a man and a woman. For tax purposes, marriage is considered an economic union. It should not be penalised in comparison with other living arrangements, particularly as regards tax and social insurance.”
Despite the loss in terms of the popular vote, proponents took comfort in the fact that their initiative had passed in most cantons (17 out of 26).
“I’m not disappointed,” said Christophe Darbellay, president of the Christian Democrats. “It is a clear signal to parliament and the cabinet to address this problem,” he said, referring to what his party calls a form of discrimination against marriage and registered partnerships.
In a press conference after all the results were in, Finance Minister Ueli Maurer acknowledged the cabinet’s obligation to ensure equal tax treatment of married couples. He noted that the topic would come up again in parliament in ten days.
“Another chapter will be written on the subject of the marriage-penalty,” Maurer said.
Results vote February 28, 2016
Hardline proposal deportation of criminal foreigners: 41.1% Yes 58.9% No
Second Gotthard road tunnel: 57% Yes 43% No
Tax breaks for married couples: 49.2% Yes 50.8% No
Ban on food speculation: 40.1% Yes 59.9% No
Opponents argued that by defining marriage as “between a man and a woman”, the initiative would have thwarted efforts to extend marriage to same-sex couples. Many said that this was the real purpose of the initiative.
“We are glad that the electorate has recognised this sham,” Bastian Baumann of the gay organisation Pink Cross told the Swiss News Agency. Lesbian Organisation Switzerland said that the vote showed the public’s willingness to stand up for equality and against discrimination.
Christian Democratic parliamentarian Marco Romano, a member of the initiative committee, said his party decided to go the direct-democracy route so as “to combat an absurd injustice, since our institutions aren’t doing it”. The campaign described the current taxation discrepancy as an “unconstitutional situation”.
In 1984, the Swiss Supreme Court ruled that tax levied on a married couple is unconstitutional if it exceeds 10% of the amount they’d have paid as people cohabitating. Following that decision, the nation’s 26 cantons came up with adjustments to relieve the burden on spouses as well as same sex couples in a registered partnership.
Still, about 80,000 couples – representing 5% of all marriages or registered partnerships – are at a disadvantage, with some paying thousands more per year than their unmarried counterparts, who are taxed individually.
Voter turnout was 63%, the highest in more than 20 years. Participation usually hovers around the 40% mark. Heavy last-minute campaigning, especially on the issue of deportation of foreign criminals, is believed to have encouraged eligible voters to exercise their right. Cities and towns such as Bern, Biel and Lausanne saw queues of people lining up on Sunday to make their votes count before the polls closed. The last initiative to see high numbers of citizens casting ballots was the vote on curbing immigration two years ago, when turnout was 55.8%.
Just over 17% of 133,500 citizens, including registered Swiss abroad eligible to take part in an ongoing trial, used e-voting, according to the Federal Chancellery.