With little money but a lot of willpower, a small group of Swiss farmers has forced a national vote on legislation adopted by parliament that would allow compulsory vaccination of their herds.
Many of the campaigners are cattle breeders who experienced trouble with livestock after an instance of forced vaccination four years ago.
How did the activists succeed – without support from any party or large organisation – in gathering 51,000 signatures in 100 days on an issue that does not affect many people directly, while large parties have tried and failed with topics of much wider interest to the general public?
The referendum was unexpected, as the amendment of the legislation on animal diseases seemed a done deal. It had sped through parliamentary readings and was carried triumphantly: out of 246 members of the two chambers, only one parliamentarian voted against it last March.
Opposition to the reform of regulations comes essentially from citizens in rural eastern Switzerland. swissinfo.ch visited the region to look for answers.
“This referendum is the result of the vaccination campaign against bluetongue, ordered by the federal veterinary authorities in 2008,” explains Josef “Sepp” Zahner, a farmer in the village of Kaltbrunn and member of the referendum committee.
“Almost all the farmers who pushed for the referendum had problems as a result of the vaccination,” he says.
Livestock breeders found premature births, spontaneous abortions, unexplained illnesses and deaths among their animals, says Thomas Grieder during a visit to his farm at Pfäffikon in a rural region less than 20 kilometres east of Zurich.
As they talked to each other, the farmers traced the problem back to the vaccinations. However, this cause-and-effect relationship has not been scientifically verified. The livestock breeders were not compensated and anyone who refused to get his own animals vaccinated was charged and fined.
Hence the opposition to the law, which concentrates power to prevent and detect infectious diseases in animals in the hands of the federal government.
The referendum is the brainchild of Daniel Trappitsch, a naturopath who heads an association critical of vaccination and who has coordinated the referendum campaign. Most of the signatures were gathered by the farmers themselves.
“We had no experience, but we all got involved. It was a real slog. We had to take the time to explain the issue, because a lot of people didn’t even know there was a law about animal diseases,” notes Grieder, who is also a member of the referendum committee.
“When you explain it practically, people understand,” says Zahner, who single-handedly gathered 3,000 signatures – an achievement which demanded a lot of discipline.
“Every day, I went for a few hours to some place in the region where there would be lots of people, say at a market or a local festival,” says Zahner.
The promoters found there was a snowball effect. Many people spontaneously offered to help.
“When I saw that the deadline was getting close and they still hadn’t gathered all the signatures they needed, I decided to lend a hand,” says Pascale Naumann, a primary school teacher in Pfäffikon.
“There was a lot of suspense towards the end. On the deadline day for getting in the signatures, Sepp Zahner told me that 800 signatures still hadn’t been certified by the local government offices.”
“We did a blitz that very morning: we got more than a thousand signatures and had them certified,” Grieder recalls with pride. It was a race against the clock that only ended when the lists were deposited at the federal chancellery in the capital, Bern, that evening.
The nationwide vote on November 25 is going to be an even bigger challenge. The likelihood of the activists winning the referendum seems “not very great”, although it can’t be completely excluded, says polling expert Claude Longchamp.
Based on his long experience, the political scientist expects that without a high-profile campaign and exposure in the media, it will be hard to interest citizens in the issue at stake.
The referendum activists do not have the financial backing to mount a real advertising campaign. They are trying to make up for it with sheer militancy.
“The referendum seemed doomed at the start, but thanks to the commitment of people like Sepp it was a success,” notes Ruedi Gmür, a farmer from Kaltbrunn, who is busy making posters for the referendum vote.
In rural areas where the referendum enjoys popular support, the posters are put up on private property – farms, shops and cafés.
The big problem is convincing urban Switzerland, which is home to 70 per cent of the population. That is where the activists can’t achieve much exposure. “Advertising space is too expensive,” says Grieder.
It is rare in Switzerland for a citizen group to be able to get enough support for a nationwide referendum without the backing of a major party or lobby group.
Even the parties and lobby groups themselves have often tried and failed. The most recent case in point is the proposed referendums against the tax treaties between Switzerland and Germany, Britain and Austria.
In an unlikely alliance, the rightwing group Campaign for Independent and Neutral Switzerland and the youth chapter of the Social Democratic Party joined forces - unsuccessfully in the end - to have the matter put to a vote.
The animal disease law will now be the only issue on the ballot on November 25, because the government had also scheduled the three referendums that fell short of their quorum for that day.
Polling expert Claude Longchamp expects a low turnout of about 30%.end of infobox
The proposed measuresare intended to improve prevention and early detection of infectious animal diseases. The amendment redefines the division of tasks between the federal authorities and the cantons.
The government is awarded jurisdiction over prevention and control of animal diseases, including the financing of prevention activities.
It may levy a temporary tax on holders of livestock, it determines the proportion of costs to be covered by such a tax and the part to be covered by the cantons.
It can manage vaccine banks, buy vaccines against animal diseases and distribute them for free or at a discounted price. It can negotiate international treaties on animal health.
The 26 cantons assure implementation of the measures, notably prosecuting cases of non-compliance. If violations of the law occur, the authorities may lay criminal charges. The reform foresees stricter penalties in some cases.
Adopted by parliament in March, the amendment has been challenged to a referendum.
Activists claim that the preventive actions the federal authorities might decide on would include compulsory vaccination campaigns. These allegations are rejected by the government.end of infobox
(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee), swissinfo.ch