Voters in and around Switzerland’s biggest city will soon decide on whether to define marriage in the constitution as between a man and a woman only. The move is seen as a reaction against liberal attitudes towards gay marriage. Can this initiative turn the clock back?
“Marriage is defined as a lasting and legally regulated cohabitation between a man and a woman,” This is the phrase that the ultra-conservative Christian party, the Federal Democratic Union, the small political party that has launched the “marriage protection” initiative, wants to anchor in the Zurich cantonal constitution.
The party argues that “marriage in its present form is under threat. Various forces are planning to weaken marriage, to open it up to other forms of unions or even abolish it”. Here it points to gay marriage and polygamy in particular.
The initiative is opposed by both the cantonal parliament and government. The cantonal government argues that on a legal level, the regulation of matrimonial law is actually a federal issue, not a cantonal one.
Plus it points out that previous discussions on the issue have shown that society is becoming more liberal. In February this year, a vote on tax breaks for married couples partly failed over the controversy surrounding its attempt to amend the constitution to say that marriage was a “long-term cohabitation, under the framework of law, between a man and a woman”.
The committee “together forward Zurich”, which includes local politicians as well as gay groups such as Pink Cross, has also come out against the initiative, calling its definition of marriage “discriminating”.
On a national level, the Swiss parliament is also due to debate a parliamentary proposal from the centrist Liberal Green Party called “Marriage for everyone”. A survey published on October 14 also showed seven out of ten people supported gay marriage in Switzerland.
It is not an unusual situation to have a group seeking to block a change, societal or otherwise, under the Swiss system of direct democracy.
For example, there is a new energy policy in Switzerland (Energy 2050) which seeks, among others, to phase out nuclear power and increase the use of renewables. The conservative right Swiss People’s Party has already said it will launch a referendum to block this “ruinous” law, which is deems too expensive and invasive.
Certain issues come up on the agenda repeatedly, according to political scientist Georg Lutz. Sometimes they never go through or it just takes a long time. A classic example of this is women’s suffrage which was finally approved - by a national vote of men - in 1971. Or joining the United Nations, which took two national votes before being accepted in 2002.
“I think that's a fascinating worldwide trend how quickly gay marriage has become accepted in many western countries. It has been accepted for some time, but the development has really been in the last 10-20 years,” Lutz told swissinfo.ch. “I think it’s just a question of time before the legislators process it through on a national level.”
So against this backdrop, why is the Federal Democratic Union going forward with its initiative?
“Given the attempts to widen the definition of marriage, the Federal Democratic Union has decided to specify the [Zurich] cantonal constitution and define marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman. As a Christian party, it is important that Christian values are not eliminated from our political life,” the party’s Hans Peter Häring told swissinfo.ch in an email.
In terms of the initiative’s chances, the party is hoping for support from the People’s Party, parts of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party and “especially conservative circles and Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims”, explained Häring, who sits in the Zurich cantonal parliament.
“Despite not getting support from the [cantonal] parliament, we are hoping for a reasonable public sentiment that can discern between treating equal things equally and unequal things unequally,” he said.
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Marriage for everyone
The marriage for everyone parliamentary initiative by the centrist Liberal Greens calls for marriage to be opened to same sex couples, and for this to be anchored in the constitution.
It has been accepted by both parliamentary legal committees, and is expected to be debated by both houses of parliament (the House of Representatives and the Senate) during this legislature, according to a Liberal Greens statement on October 4, 2016.
Same-sex couples can formally register their partnerships in Switzerland but gay marriage is not recognised. Moves are also underway to allow gay couples to adopt (a Federal Democratic Union initiative against this has failed to gather enough signatures).