Newspapers agree that, as a result of government misinformation, the Federal Court was right to annul the results of a vote on tax breaks for families. But there’s also talk of a “risky precedent” and a Pandora’s box.
“What choice did the Federal Court have?” wondered the Tribune de Genève. “If it hadn’t annulled [this initiative], it would never annul anything. The administration’s mistake was so glaring and the result so close that any other verdict would have been scandalous.”
In a first for Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, the judges at Switzerland’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that the government had failed to provide correct information to voters on a proposal to ensure equal tax treatment for married and unmarried couples. This paves the way for a re-run of the ballot.
The initiative by the centre-right Christian Democratic Party was narrowly rejected in a nationwide vote in February 2016.
The government admitted the misinformation last year, saying the number of couples that would be affected was wrongly reported. Instead of the 80,000 married and registered couples that were in line to benefit from reduced taxes, it was 454,000 couples.
“Democracy has won, but it looks like a Pyrrhic victory,” the Tribune de Genève continued. “By setting this precedent, the judiciary has opened a Pandora’s box and we don’t yet know what’s going to come out of it.”
The paper said the debate raised two fundamental issues: citizens’ trust in the authorities and the margin of error that a society is willing to accept. “In a direct democracy the public is called on to vote all the time and on all sorts of issues. To do that, it has to have the arguments for and against (including the fake news that comes with it), but also figures that it can legitimately consider correct. Caught out, will the government dare try [to provide numbers] again?”
‘Slap in the face’
In German-speaking Switzerland, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) reckoned the court verdict was above all a “slap in the face” for the government.
“Its significance lies primarily in the signal for the information policy of the authorities. We can expect additional caution with future estimates, a stronger emphasis on uncertainty and faster updates,” it said.
Criticism of the authorities is certainly appropriate, in the paper’s view, “but many of those involved in politics should also take a look in the mirror: the deliberate misleading of citizens by parties and lobbyists is par for the course in vote campaigns.”
For the Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund, “it would have been to the detriment of democracy if the judges in Lausanne had accepted misinformation of such magnitude with a simple shrug of the shoulders”.
“The federal administration has now been given a warning that it should have got for the vote on corporate tax reform [in 2008],” the papers said. “In that case, the voting documents also contained numbers that in hindsight turned out to be completely off.”
Back then, the Federal Court rejected demands to cancel the result of the corporate tax reform vote, saying a re-run would undermine legal security.
Le Temps in Lausanne said the court decision had a double effect.
“On the one hand, it is imperative to abolish tax disadvantages for marriage; on the other, the public must be appropriately informed. The annulment of the 2016 vote is historic and for the government such a setback is serious. The decision will force the government and above all the federal administration to pay attention to the numbers they submit to parliament and voters,” it concluded.
“This is good for democracy.”