For the first time in the history of Swiss direct democracy, voters may have go back to the polls at the national level, to decide for a second time on the same people’s initiative.
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This is due to the fact that the government published erroneous figures in its official booklet for the 2016 initiative for proposed tax breaks for married couples.
The initiative, promoted by the centrist Christian Democratic Party, appeared to spark no major controversies in the run-up to the vote in March 2016, and voters threw it out with a wafer-thin majority of 50.8%.
But with the recent revelation about misleading information, things could take a spectacular turn.
The party which traditionally campaigns on family issues has submitted legal complaints in several courts and has called for a re-vote. It accuses the government of misinformation.
Earlier this month, the Swiss tax authorities admitted that they had provided incorrect figures in the official brochure to the citizens. Initially, they argued that the higher tax rate for married couples would affect 80,000 couples. But now they corrected the figure to put it at 454,000 couples - more than five times as many.
It is an open question whether more voters would have approved the initiative had they known about the higher figure. Experts say the final say on the issue lies with the Supreme Court.
In a Swiss-style democracy, bargaining over figures is part and parcel of political campaigns ahead of public votes. But it makes a difference whether the figures put forward by politicians and parties are guesswork and vague assumption or whether they are based on reliable data from government sources.
Here’s a small selection of erroneous information in campaigns:
● Corporate Tax Reform, February 2008 (Yes): The government put the expected shortfall in revenue for the public sector at CHF83 million ($83 million) for the federal authorities and CHF850 million for the cantons. Opponents warned that the reform could cost up to CHF15 billion by 2021. A demand for a re-run of the vote was rejected by the Supreme Court.
● Treaty on the free movement of people with the European Union, May 2000 (Yes): The government forecast 8,000-10,000 additional immigrants. In actual fact, 80,000 people moved to Switzerland after the vote. This information was provided by Matthias Borner, a parliamentarian in canton Solothurn, in a letter to newspaper editors. He also mentions further misjudgements by the Swiss government.
● Bilateral agreements with the EU, May 2000 (Yes): The government did not expect “a massive increase” in the number of foreign doctors. But their share has doubled from 17% then to 34% over the past 17 years, according to Borner.
● Switzerland’s membership in the Schengen border accord, June 2005 (Yes): According to the government, membership should cost CHF7.4 million per year – but in actual fact it was CHF100 million per year.
In the past, Public votes have been cancelled at cantonal levels: For example, after voters in canton Bern decided that the Laufental region would become part of canton Basel Country in 1983, the vote had to be repeated six years later after it came to light that the Bern cantonal government used money from a slush fund to pay citizens to stay with Bern.
Also in canton Bern, a ballot on motor vehicle tax had to be scheduled a second time in 2012 because several municipalities had destroyed the ballot papers and thus made recounting impossible.
Adapted from German/urs