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Historic day Swiss town of Moutier votes to change cantons

The federal government sent ten staff to monitor the counting.

(swissinfo.ch)

In an historic vote that put an end to one of the oldest political conflicts in Switzerland, the western French-speaking town of Moutier narrowly voted “yes” on Sunday to leave the German-speaking canton of Bern and join neighbouring Jura.

The citizens of this working-class municipality of 7,700 made their decision by a margin of only 51.7% in favor of the move: 2,067 for leaving Bern and joining Jura, 1,930 votes opposed.  Moutier was part of one of three districts that had previously opted to remain part of German-speaking Bern even though they are French-speaking. However, the question of whether to instead join francophone canton Jura continued to simmer in the town over decades and resulted in Sunday's vote, the fifth in 42 years on the issue.

The issue was so controversial that officials called in election observers, and the closely-watched vote counting made for a suspenseful afternoon. The results came in more than two hours later than expected.

The stakes involved in the elections and a very high turnout - almost 90%, more than twice the usual rate in Switzerland - forced the polling station's 32 employees to do some recounting to avoid any challenge to the result. Fewer than a dozen contentious cases - deceased persons, for example, in the register of voters - were recorded.

‘One of the happiest days of my life’

After a nail-biting delay, the pro-Jura militants, gathered by thousands in the square near the Moutier train station, were able to let their joy burst forth. Among them was the mayor, Marcel Winistoerfer, who struggled to hide his emotions. "This is one of the happiest days of my life, quite simply. The suspense lasted for a while but it's good to have done things methodically to avoid any problems," he told swissinfo.ch.

Winistoerfer was also confident about how things would play out after the voting. "We are not afraid of the reaction of the losers (pro-Bernese). When the emotions have subsided, I am sure we will be able to get around the table to find constructive solutions," he said.

The day of voting in Moutier was a far cry from the explosive atmosphere during the voting on a similar measure on September 7, 1975, when the town refused for the third time in a row, by 54.1%, to join Jura, the newest of Switzerland's 26 cantons, or states, and among the ten smallest by population. Bern is the country's second-biggest canton, by population and size, behind only Zurich and Graubünden, respectively. In 1975, the separatists took to the streets to face the pro-Bernese contingent in a conflict that had deeply divided the region into two nearly irreconcilable camps.

Tense, but with a lighter touch

In Sunday's vote, the mood was anything but hostile. Instead, a festive crowd had taken over the town's streets by midday. During the campaign, those who favored leaving Bern had focused on "positive and relaxed" communication, including humorous clips distributed via social networks.

The most virulent political attacks came via the Facebook pages of various campaign committees, but also in reader correspondence with the two regional daily newspapers, the Journal du Jura (pro-Bernese) and the Quotidien Jurassien newspaper.

But the Bernese and Jura governments bear some responsibility for the tensions that marked the final weeks of the campaign. In a television documentary, Jura Minister Charles Juillard said that in the event of a "yes" to Moutier, it would be time to convince the inhabitants of Roches, a small town between Moutier and the canton of Jura, to also join the canton of Jura. His words sparked an outcry in the Bernese camp, since they go against commitments previously made by Jura's government.

No big problems

For its part, the pro-Jura campaign underestimated the taxes that Moutier had paid to canton Bern. The campaign also focused heavily on the future of the Moutier hospital, breaking both parties' commitments to not make it a vote issue.

Despite these polemics, the campaign did not give rise to major conflicts or bad feelings. No serious incidents were reported and no criminal charges were filed for acts of vandalism related to the voting.

Two centuries of the Jurassic question

1815: At the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna attributes the seven districts of the Jura to the canton of Bern.

1950s: The rise of the separatist movement.

1974-75: The Jura is divided, the three districts in the north form the new canton, the southern three remain Bernese, and Laufen will join Basel-Country in the 90s. In Moutier, the decision to remain Bernese is 70 votes apart.

1979: Entry into sovereignty of the canton of Jura, after a vote of the whole of Switzerland, which accepts its creation at 82%.

1994: Establishment of the Interjurassian Assembly (AIJ), an institution of reconciliation, under the aegis of the federal government and cantons of Jura and Bern.

1998: The commune of Moutier organizes an advisory vote on its attachment to the Jura, which is refused by a margin of 41 votes.

November 24, 2013: At 72%, citizens of the Bernese Jura and Jura refuse to initiate a process to bring the two regions together in the same canton. In Moutier, the Jura supporters won for the first time, with 389 votes.

June 18, 2017: Moutier votes to attach itself to the canton of Jura. In principle, for the last time.

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Translated from French by John Heilprin, swissinfo.ch

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