A ballot box decision is due on Sunday about whether to grant shareholders a veto right over salaries of top managers and board members of listed companies. Polls only closed around midday, but the controversial initiative looks already set to pass.
A representative opinion poll from February gave supporters of the proposal an unprecedented 40 per cent lead, prompting opponents to scale back their public campaign two weeks before voting day.
The initiative, launched nearly seven years ago, is the brainchild of a businessman-turned-politician, Thomas Minder. The self-styled anti-establishment champion wants to rein in excessive payments to top managers by giving shareholders a greater say on remuneration issues.
Supporters on the left face a centre-right and rightwing alliance, led by Economiesuisse, the main lobby group of the business community. It is said to have spent up to CHF8 million ($8.6 million) to fight the constitutional amendment.
Instead they have argued that a watered-down compromise proposal hammered out in a protracted parliamentary procedure is more efficient and practical.
Experts also highlighted striking divisions within many parties and major organisations, including some trade unions. While their leaderships came out against the initiative, dismissing it as too radical, their grassroot members lean towards approval.
The campaign in the run-up to the vote was marked by strong emotions over greedy managers.
Media attention over the past few weeks has focused particularly on bonuses at Switzerland’s biggest bank UBS despite its multi-billion-franc deficit last year and on payments to the former chairman of the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, Daniel Vasella. The public outrage over a CHF72 million payout forced him to forego the financial benefit.
Ballot key facts
An estimated 5.1 million citizens are eligible to take part in the vote - the first set in a series of up to four ballots this year.
Up to 162,000 of them, mostly members of the Swiss abroad community, can have a say online as part of an ongoing trial with e-voting.
Apart from the nationwide ballot, votes on a variety of issues are scheduled in many cantons and at a local level on the same day.
Another constitutional amendment put to voters seeks to promote the creation of child daycare facilities, boosting the chances of young mothers in the job market and improving work-life balance for families.
Switzerland ranks behind many other countries in Europe when it comes to childcare facilities, including school meals and nurseries.
Insufficient infrastructure makes it hard for women to keep their jobs, according to supporters. They say the federal authorities must encourage cantons to provide more safeguards to families, answering their needs and society’s expectations.
However, critics argue the proposal adds an additional financial burden and is an unnecessary interference by the state in family matters.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party mounted a massive marketing campaign to try and bring down the amendment, which has the support of major parties, including the centre-left Social Democrats, the Greens and the centre-right Christian Democrats, as well as the cabinet.
The centre-right Radicals, who are traditionally close to the business community, are split over the issue.
A 20-year freeze on development areas in a bid to stop urban sprawl is also on the ballot sheet.
Parliament last year decided to tighten the law on land use, but opponents, led by the influential Association of Small and Medium-Sized Entreprises and backed by the People’s Party and the Radicals, gathered enough signatures to force a vote.
They are concerned by additional levies, rezoning issues and fears that the cantons risk losing their autonomy to the federal authorities. However, environmentalists say urban sprawl is damaging the countryside.
The campaign has been particularly heated in canton Valais, a region known for its holiday resorts.
The roots of this political maze go back to 2005, when an American biotechnology giant wanted to build an industrial complex on a greenfield site that also happened to be one of Switzerland’s most important farmland areas.
Turnout for the votes is expected to be above average at around 45 per cent.