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Democratic discontent? Swiss cities ‘groaning under flood of demonstrations’

Women filling a street in Bern

Bern was gridlocked on June 14 as hundreds of thousands of women went on strike, demanding the same treatment and conditions as men

(Keystone)

Swiss residents are taking to the streets more than ever, with the capital Bern expected to see 300 demos for the first time this year. But residents and commuters are unimpressed, and shopkeepers are worried about their very existence. 

It’s Black Friday, one of the most profitable days of the year for shops. Yet the Zurich police warn that from 4pm – just in time for rush hour – people should find alternative routes around the old town and the area near the lake. Trams are being diverted. The reason? A climate demonstration. 

Not long after that protest has finished, another begins: a bicycle procession with no fixed route that results, as the organisers want, in traffic delays. 

The next day in Zurich Tibetans are protesting against the arrest of monks in their homeland. There will probably be another couple of demonstrations on Saturday, since by no means all protestors apply for an official authorisation to march. 

Bern is most affected, according to a report in the SonntagsZeitungexternal link. Under a headline “Cities groan under flood of demonstrations”, it says that on average the capital’s narrow streets host six rallies a week. On some weekends, four demonstrations take place at the same time. 

‘Too much of a hassle’ 

The newspaper says the increasing number of protests – last year there were 299 in Bern, this year there were already 280 by the end of October – are not only annoying for residents, commuters and visitors, they also threaten the existence of numerous city shops. 

In Zurich, for example, women’s clothes boutique Escada last week said it was closing after 30 years as on many Saturdays – in theory the busiest day of the week – customers were staying away because of demonstrations. 

The association of downtown shops is alarmed. Association president Milan Prenosil, also boss of Confiserie Sprüngli, told the paper that some demonstrations caused losses of several hundred thousand francs. 

“Going shopping in the city has become too much of a hassle for many people if roads are constantly blocked off and trams diverted,” he said. “Sometimes there’s also the fear of things turning violent.” 

The SonntagsZeitung said all retailers it had spoken to said they had nothing against activists for the climate, gay rights, animal rights, women or any other group that takes to the streets. Also no one was questioning the right to demonstrate – a cornerstone of democracy. 

“The problem is purely the amount and the concentration in the inner cities,” it said. 

What to do? 

“It can’t be right that whole streets are cordoned off simply because 250 people want to demonstrate against the Falun Gong sect,” the SonntagsZeitung wrote in an editorialexternal link

“The new abortion law in Poland may very well be bad – but do 70 protestors have to disrupt the traffic here in Switzerland as a result? What good does it do if every few weeks 100 Kurds, under a considerable, costly police presence, shout ‘Freedom for Öcalan’ or 150 people express solidarity with Catalonia or Tibet?” 

“Let’s be honest,” the paper continued. “Most protests have precisely no effect – the vast majority of issues are already well known or can be got across equally well in other ways. In fact, the effect is not infrequently counterproductive, if tiny minorities try to make a name for themselves at a cost of the great majority.” 

The editorialist reckoned it was high time that the authorities “tightened their practice of granting authorisations, banned protests from the centre of cities and prevented or fined unauthorised marches”. 

This, he said, was to protect the urban communities and businesses “and not least the demonstrators themselves, who are increasingly doing their causes a disservice”.


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