A communist takes on the tax cutters

Zisyadis (right) presents his papers to the Sarnen authorities Keystone

A communist Swiss politician tells swissinfo why he changed residence to enable him to contest a decision to lower taxes for the rich.

This content was published on March 27, 2006 minutes

Joseph Zisyadis moved to a mountain region in central Switzerland where voters approved the introduction of a degressive tax system in a bid to attract businesses and the wealthy.

Zisyadis, who until January lived on Lake Geneva in the French-speaking part of the country, has lodged an appeal against the new tax regime with the Federal Court arguing that it goes against the constitution.

His move was greeted with fury by many in the German-speaking region of Obwalden, which introduced the cuts on January 1.

He had difficulty finding accommodation, and reporters visiting the main town, Sarnen, filmed a life-size, headless effigy of Zisyadis on the street.

Zisyadis, 50, a former councillor of Lausanne City and member of the Vaud cantonal government, is one of two representatives of the Communist Labour Party in the federal parliament.

swissinfo: What have you got against a degressive tax system?

Josef Zisyadis: I am opposed to this system because it is the first step by wealthy Swiss people to introduce the flat tax in all federal, cantonal and local taxes.

The flat tax, which is wanted by a part of the government and by some on the political right, would be the end of social solidarity through tax, the end of progressiveness.

In a way, it's the return to the Middle Ages in the social organisation of society. The richer you are, the less you contribute to the community.

swissinfo: What is the substance of your legal case? And specifically, which part of the constitution is incompatible with the Obwalden tax system?

J.Z.: Article 127 of the federal constitution bases the payment of tax according to everyone's capacity to contribute. To my way of thinking the law in Obwalden contradicts this principle.

It's legitimate therefore to verify this element at the Federal Court.

It is, by the way, strange that the government of Obwalden did not do this before the popular vote.

So, to be precise, we do not contest the tax cuts agreed by the people. That is their right. What we are contesting is tax degression for the richest.

swissinfo: Do you really think you can win in court? Or is this merely a symbolic action?

J.Z.: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Three people from Obwalden have signed the appeal with me.

My duty as a member of the House of Representatives is to relaunch resistance where others have left off... because they could not find anyone to contest the decision.

It's not just a symbolic act. It's a democratic act at a time when all authority is with the economy and when those elected by the people are considered less than nothing. But there is not just the legal appeal.

My move has helped to relaunch debate on taxation, on fiscal harmonisation in Switzerland, [and] on fiscal paradises that cause so much wrong to our country.

And now it's necessary to go to parliament with concrete proposals, so why not a popular initiative [which could lead to a vote]?

swissinfo: Have you received any support in Obwalden for your case?

J.Z.: Yes, I've received much encouragement and sympathy in letters and from telephone calls.

But I have also come across the fear of many citizens not wishing to express themselves publicly.

Many are grateful that someone who has nothing to lose is making this act of political resistance.

When all is said and done, I was not even needed for the appeal because three people from Obwalden were prepared to make it.

swissinfo: Were you surprised at the strong reactions towards you in Obwalden? What kind of reactions have you encountered?

J.Z.: Not at all. Politics is like that. Sometimes it can be difficult. As long as no one leaves democratic ground, it's normal.

The only thing I detest is violence. Violence leads nowhere. We are among ourselves as Swiss and I have always said everywhere that we are all people from Obwalden in the debate on tax degression.

swissinfo: How is your family finding the experience?

J.Z.: My family does not live in Obwalden. What is difficult is to live this political act personally.

But I have never thought of politics as being the search for a place [in society] and a career but the fight to improve our social conditions everywhere in Switzerland and the world.

That is well worth some sacrifices of time and some inconvenience.

swissinfo-interview: Matthew Allen

In brief

Obwalden joined the ranks of the low-tax cantons on January 1, slashing personal and corporate tax rates, and introducing a degressive system.

Last week the canton said 97 firms had set up shop there since January 1 (compared with 39 in the same period last year), and that 25 of those had relocated from other cantons.

The new tax regime means higher earners pay proportionately less tax than do lower ones.

The cantonal property tax has also dropped by at least 30% and the 6.6% corporate tax is now the lowest in Switzerland.

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Key facts

Josef Zisyadis is one of two members of parliament representing the Communist Labour Party.
He was living in French-speaking Lausanne until January, when he moved to German-speaking Obwalden.
Born in Istanbul in 1954, he has been active in local politics in Lausanne and canton Vaud since 1989 and a member of the House of Representatives from 1991-96 and again since 1999.

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