Switzerland is holding the world’s first nationwide vote on introducing an unconditional basic income. Despite a spectacular pro campaign, there is no hope of it winning a majority on Sunday.
The promoters – a group of humanists, artists and entrepreneurs – believe the initiative would allow all residents to live in dignity, as the money would help cover essential needs and they would be free to choose a more creative way of living.
The proposal aims at reforming the cumbersome existing social security systems, boost volunteer work and soften the impact of social disruption caused by technological change.
The promoters have set no specific amount for a basic income, but they have mentioned a monthly figure of CHF2,500 ($2,510) per adult and CHF625 for minors.
This is slightly higher than the current maximum monthly state old age pension allowance and corresponds to what is considered the breadline in Switzerland.
Countries as diverse as Brazil, Finland, Italy and the Netherlands, local and national governments are already experimenting with the idea of introducing some form of basic income. A limited trial also took place in Canada in the 1970s.
Value of work
Opponents say the initiative in Switzerland would be too costly, undermine the ethical value of work and encourage immigration.
Interior Minister Alain Berset has warned of damaging the Swiss economy and the traditional welfare schemes, saying that an unconditional basic income could cost more than CHF200 billion ($201 billion) annually, leading to hefty tax increases and cuts in public spending.
Support for the initiative has been limited to the political left – the Green Party and to some extent the Social Democrats – but the trade unions have come out against it.
The respected Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, which has close links to the country’s business community, described the initiative as “direct democratic hot air”.
The promoters have repeatedly said they did not expect their proposal to win a majority of votes on Sunday but they are convinced it is simply a matter of time before a basic income will be commonplace at an international level.
Their campaign, which included spectacular publicity stunts such as giving away free CHF10 notes, has divided opinion.
It won praise as a creative and clever attempt to raise public awareness and maintain interest, while critics slammed it as a narcissistic marketing endeavour by a group of attention-seeking utopists and idealists.
The initiative is expected to win between 20-30% of the vote according to opinion polls.
In comparison, an initiative aimed at a fundamental overhaul of the consumer tax system won just 8% approval in a nationwide vote last year - the worst ballot box defeat since 1971.
A highly controversial proposal by a pacifist group to abolish Switzerland’s armed forces had the backing of 35.6% of voters in 1989.
June 5 vote
Beside the proposal for an unconditional basic income, there are two other people’s initiatives to be decided.
A proposal to boost state-owned public service companies and a plan to provide extra tax funds for road transport.
Two decisions by parliament are also at stake. A reform of the asylum laws and a law on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.