The people of Bern have been voting on whether to finance a SFr22.5 million ($15 million) credit package for the city's 2010 Winter Olympics bid.
Organisers say a refusal will almost certainly mean the city will have to pull out of the Olympic race.
Bern - which is bidding for the Winter Games for the fourth time since 1969 - has been shortlisted as one of four possible 2010 host cities, along with Vancouver (Canada), Salzburg (Austria) and South Korea's Pyeongchang.
The Bernese have to decide whether to support the proposed SFr22.5 million deal - SFr15 million for a new ice rink in Bern and the development of other sporting facilities in the canton and SFr7.5 million for Bern 2010, the company set up to organise and promote the bid.
Martin Hodler, the head of the Bern bid, says public support is crucial to the success of the city's candidature.
"This has first priority because [the entire project] depends on that 'yes' from the Bernese," he said.
This is because the Olympic Committee stipulates that bids must come with financial backing from the public.
But with a very strong anti-Olympic committee claiming that the burden of financing the Games could fall on the local population's shoulders, the vote is expected to be very close, with some pundits predicting an outright rejection.
Risk of debt
Supporters argue that a new ice stadium at Allmend in Bern is needed irrespective of the outcome of the bid, and that taxpayers would not have to foot the bill for it.
But opponents criticise the linking of the proposed new stadium with Bern's Olympic bid. They are also concerned that SFr7.5 million would have to be set aside from cantonal finances to buy shares in Bern 2010.
Critics are worried that the sum might not be enough and that the public will consequently be saddled with a huge tax bill to combat spiralling debts.
Those in favour of the move argue that the sum will only be needed if Bern wins the right to host the Games, and have promised that if the Winter Olympics make a profit, the money will be repaid in its entirety.
Bern 2010 and its supporters have been campaigning hard to convince sceptical voters of the benefits of the project.
The Bernese population is already wary of funding such large projects after the repeated calls for extra funding for the country's troubled national exhibition, Expo.02.
Bern's cantonal government - one of Switzerland's poorest - also recently added to the controversy by announcing plans to minimise the canton's SFr11 billion debt.
In a bid to save SFr1 billion between 2003 and 2006, it intends to shed 570 jobs among civil servants, teaching staff and employees of subsidised companies in the canton.
Bern's bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games has been dogged by controversy from the outset.
Critics claim that Bern has neither the money nor the facilities for such an endeavour and that the city cannot compete with the current favourites, Vancouver and Salzburg.
But the bid's supporters counter that the Games would boost Bern's importance as a centre for winter sports, as well as put the city and Switzerland as a whole firmly in the international spotlight.
Organisers estimate profits of between SFr1.4 and SFr2.6 billion from the event, which could create between 550 and 1000 jobs.
"It's a great chance for the canton, which is already financially hard up," said committee director general, Dres von Weissenfluh. "It'll be important for tourism and investment."
Bern has been proposed as the bid's host city, with additional Olympic locations in the cantons of Vaud, Fribourg and Graubünden.
Organisers estimate that the total cost of the Games will amount to around SFr987 million, while the bid itself will cost an estimated SFr12.5 million.
Apart from canton Bern, further financing would come from the state, the other cantons involved and the private sector.
If Bern is still in the running, it will have until January 10, 2003 to submit its bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with the final decision being announced the following July.
Bern's chances of actually winning the right to host the Games are thought to be slim.
Despite making the shortlist, the IOC reported that the bid "does not best respond to the needs of the athletes and could create significant organisational difficulties."
A second factor is that both upcoming Olympics will be staged in Europe - the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece and the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
swissinfo, Isobel Johnson
Switzerland hosted the first winter Olympic Games in 1948.
This is Bern's fourth bid since 1969.
Sion was defeated by Turin to host the 2006 Games.
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