In a close vote last year, Moutier voters decided their small town should secede from Bern to join canton Jura. There are growing indications that several citizens moved their addresses temporarily to Moutier to be able to take part in the historic vote.
Last June’s local vote was meant to be the final act in a long and protracted chapter of modern Swiss history which contained all the ingredients for a civil war, including linguistic and religious differences, minorities and emotions.
The conflict began to escalate in the 1960s and 1970s when a separatist movement was founded seeking to split the French-speaking districts in the Jura hills from canton Bern, which had established its rule in the region in 1815.
Attempts to solve the territorial conflict culminated in 1978 with the foundation of a 26th canton in Switzerland (Jura) in a nationwide vote, often seen as a model for a peaceful and democratic conflict management.
Last year’s vote in Moutier, however, held under heightened security and intense scrutiny, once again brought to the fore some of the emotions and deep divisions in the society of the region, which is less than 40km (25 miles) north of the Swiss capital, Bern.
The result on June 18, 2017 was tight: 137 votes made the difference in favour of the proposal to change to canton Jura.
Several complaints were filed about suspected cases of vote fraud in the wake of the ballot box decision. In a further escalation last month, it emerged that several dozen citizens were apparently given residence status in Moutier shortly before the vote and that they moved away again shortly afterwards.
In other words, their temporary – and sometimes fictitious – residencies allowed them to participate in the crucial vote.
This type of ‘ballot box tourism’ is not a new phenomenon. The region of Moutier has recorded similar cases since the 1990s whenever there was a vote on territorial issues, according to the SonntagsZeitung newspaper.
The Bern cantonal authorities, quoted by the daily Der Bund, put the figure at between 50 and 150 people who changed residency each time.
And though it is not illegal for citizens to move home and register with the authorities for this purpose, in extreme cases it can result in the annulation of a vote result.
Some cantons have taken precautions to prevent such ballot box tourism, introducing a minimum time of residence – three months for instance – before a citizen is given the right to participate in a vote or an election.
A clause, stipulating a waiting period of up to two years, was only struck from the Swiss constitution before the turn of the millennium.
The latest case falls under the remit of the district authorities in the Bernese Jura district. They have the power to annul the June vote, but only provided there is evidence of a substantial amount of ‘ballot box tourism’ registered by the local government of Moutier.
The reports of suspected irregularities have alarmed the Swiss government. The justice ministry has invited representatives of the Bern and the Jura cantonal governments to a meeting in the next few months as part of a regular political dialogue.
“I want to clear the situation to try to calm tensions,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said, indirectly responding to a call from the Moutier mayor, who has appealed for guidance and help.