In the 1990s pacifists and the political left tried - and failed - to block the purchase of new fighter jets for the Swiss Air Force. Twenty years on they have taken aim again, challenging a parliamentary decision to buy 22 Swedish Gripen aircraft.
On May 18 voters have the final say on defence ministry plans to spend CHF3.1 billion ($3.5 billion) over the next decade to acquire JAS-39 lightweight fighter aircraft from aerospace manufacturer Saab.
The jets, still in development, would replace the ageing fleet of F-5 Tiger jets and help protect the Swiss airspace up to the year 2050.
The outcome of the ballot should end ten years of technical evaluation and political debate over what would be a partial renewal of the Swiss Air Force fleet.
Last September both chambers of parliament finally gave the purchase the green light, despite opposition by the left and a small centrist party.
An alliance of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the smaller Liberal Greens – as well as the Switzerland without an Army pacifist group then launched a referendum on the issue, collecting about 66,000 signatures, enough to bring it to a nationwide vote.
Waste of money
Evi Allemann, a leading Social Democratic parliamentarian, says the acquisition of the Gripen aircraft is a waste of taxpayers’ money, is too expensive and unnecessary.
“It will cost more than CHF10 billion to buy and maintain the fleet. This money would be better spent on education, public transport or the old age pension scheme,” she says.
Allemann argues Switzerland does not need new fighter jets to police its airspace as it is surrounded by friendly European neighbours. Besides, she says, there’s a serious risk in buying a type of fighter jet that is still a prototype and inferior to the F/A-18 Hornet which is the backbone of the Swiss Air Force.
As yet the Gripen model the Swiss want to buy only exists on paper. It is to be developed on the basis of an already existing jet.
Jo Lang, a leading Green Party member and co-founder of the Switzerland without an Army group, believes that parliament and the cabinet are setting the wrong priorities.
“The real risks, dangers and threats are of a civilian nature. Security should mean opting out of nuclear energy and a climate policy instead of spending billions on Gripen jets.”
Four issues at stake
Besides the referendum against the purchase of Gripen fighter jets, voters also have the final say on three other issues on May 18.
Top of the ballot sheet is a proposal by trade unions to set a nationwide minimum salary.
A proposal to ban for life convicted paedophile criminals from working with children and a constitutional amendment to boost the role of family doctors in the country’s health system.
It is the second of up to four nationwide ballots this year.
At the same time, a series of votes and elections are scheduled at cantonal and local level on May 18.
However, supporters of the acquisition say security for Switzerland is the primary reason for updating the air force fleet.
Jakob Büchler leads a multi-party committee campaigning for the Gripen jet.
“The security of our country and the protection of our population over the next 30 years are at stake,” the parliamentarian for the centre-right Christian Democratic Party says.
He says nobody knows what the future will bring and whether Switzerland might be affected by a conflict over natural resources, including water, or a major dispute over energy, food, work or data.
The committee, made up of representatives of the People’s Party, the Christian Democrats, the Radicals and the Conservative Democrats and members of the engineering industry, says Switzerland needs the Swedish jets for a credible and affordable air defence.
Trying to rebuff allegations of a luxury acquisition, Corina Eichenberger, parliamentarian for the centre-right Radical Party, says: “The Gripen is not a Rolls-Royce. It is a modern and reliable four-wheel drive.”
Two other types of military jet were eliminated during an extended evaluation procedure by the Swiss authorities.
Prosperity and security
Defence Minister Ueli Maurer has been a vocal advocate of the jets. He argues Switzerland can afford to spend the money on the fighter jet to contribute to security in Europe, and that the Gripen is the best value for money and neutral Sweden an ideal business partner.
Saab is offering “interesting compensation deals” to Swiss firms to the tune of about CHF2.5 billion, the minister says.
In March the state-owned Ruag technology group was awarded a multi-million contract from Saab to develop and produce payload mountings - mechanisms to carry additional fuel tanks, missiles or reconnaissance systems.
Swiss companies in the engineering, machinery and watchmaking industries as well as researchers at universities across the country stand to benefit from the offset businesses. They are due to provide about 1,000 jobs over the next ten years.
Maurer states that the planned purchase is a political compromise and the result of years of debate and he points out that the Swiss Air Force has reduced its fleet to fewer than 90 aircraft from about 300 in the 1990s.
Backers say the opposition against military jets is the latest effort by pacifists to undermine Switzerland’s armed forces.
Back in June 1993 voters threw out a proposed moratorium on the purchase of fighter jets after an emotional campaign by the Switzerland without an Army group and a wide pro-publicity drive by the defence ministry. The decision paved the way for the acquisition of 34 F/A 18 Hornets.
It was the second initiative by the pacifists who landed a major political upset in 1989 when one in three voters came out in favour of abolishing the Swiss Armed Forces.
In 2009 the group then handed in enough signatures calling for a halt to the purchase of military aircraft. The initiative was withdrawn when the government abandoned the plans.
But in response to a parliament decision last year, the group swiftly collected the necessary signatures to force another nationwide ballot.
Swiss Air Force
Switzerland’s frontline air force currently consists of 32 F/A 18 Hornet and 54 F-5 Tiger aircraft.
The Tiger fleet is to be replaced by 22 JAS-39 Gripen jets.
The Air Force also includes Pilatus trainer aircraft and more than 40 Eurocopter helicopters, as well as drones and special transport planes.
The Swedish Gripen was in competition with the Rafale by France’s Dassault and the Eurofighter by the European EADS consortium.