Politics is full of contradictions. An initiative aimed at strengthening and even expanding public services was worded in such a way that the opposite was to be feared: a further thinning of services, a reduction in mountainous regions and privatisation. The Swiss have done an about-face on voting day by clearly rejecting the ‘Pro Public Services” initiative.
As the initiative’s delighted opponents noted, following the high approval rating in the first opinion poll, the Swiss citizens then fortunately “noticed” that it would have led to a backwards step into the 1990s; to a weakening of public services and ultimately to a veritable sham.
Nostalgia likely played a role in explaining the initial acceptance of the initiative. Old things aren’t thrown away because we fear we’ll lose touch with the past. When was the last time you saw your parents clear out the attic?
“You don’t need that any more, you’ve had a new one for ages.” “Yes, but it reminds me of my childhood.” “Let’s at least throw out these old dishes.” “But they belonged to my mother.”
On Sunday, the vote was a similar kind of struggle with sentimentality over something that was once good and on which much of Switzerland has been built. A sense of trust and duty are closely connected to the state. But when you take a deeper look at these values you see right into people’s souls. The opponents of the initiative were wrong in believing their efforts alone during the campaign to enlighten ignorant citizens were enough to turn the vote.
Maybe there were other reasons that led people to initially express approval for the initiative above and beyond their subjective dissatisfaction with a service or product.
The reason may lie in the public service itself. Many older people still remember a time when a democratic society was built not only on freedom, but also on equality. Public services are built on the principles of equality, a value that is increasingly supplanted by social exclusion. Access for all with the same standards of quality and at an affordable price. Thus, public services are an essential part of the democratic history of Switzerland.
This has nothing to do with sentimentality. It has more to do with legitimate concerns for the principles of coexistence and social equality in debates, which will in future be dominated even more by rightwing conservative circles.
If any politician sees this as nostalgia, then they don’t take Swiss voters seriously. Switzerland now faces a fight over public services that existed long before Sunday’s vote. This is a struggle for power: economic might battling it out with democracy. Or to put it another way: the privatisation of public goods, which should be open to all, threatens to diminish the margins of democratic choice.
Switzerland has become what it is today thanks to its public services - or as the 33% of Yes believe: they are part of what Switzerland once was, providing an integrative service open to all sections of society.
By focusing purely on individual products and services we only learn how far these companies are willing to go to test their entrepreneurial freedoms. It is easy to forget that Swiss identity is also at stake when defining the role of public services.
It is therefore all the more incomprehensible that politicians are surprised about the intensity of the debate. It is about basic values, not money or profits. Such emotions reveal how much the Swiss love and need their public services – especially in the most remote valleys and regions. The political backlash created uncertainty. It belies the fact that public services have become so deeply entrenched in people’s emotions. People can, and should, also criticize the things that they love. But this criticism does not mean that they want the services to be privatised. A proper debate should be held but not exploited politically.
Future Swiss policy aims to clarify and define public services. “What are basic services?” asked Transport Minister Doris Leuthard after Sunday’s vote. It is a necessary debate, but it must also be honest because it hits right at the heart of Swiss democracy. If the answer is that individual interests take precedence over an homogenous society then society will fragment even further.
For all the politicians who spoke out after the vote for a strengthening of public services, should take a look into the public soul.
Translated from German by Matt Allen, swissinfo.ch