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Biometric passport vote hangs in the balance

Supporters and opponents are neck and neck in the passport vote Keystone

Sunday's vote on the introduction of electronic passports and a central fingerprint register is too close to call, according to pollsters.

This content was published on May 17, 2009 - 13:42

The controversial new travel document would include the holder's electronic photograph and two fingerprints. Polls had predicted the result would be close, and partial results confirm that.

The gfs.berne polling and research institute said it could not predict the outcome with any accuracy. Around 50 per cent of voters appeared to have backed the passport initiative, but the margin of error was two per cent either way.

A separate vote on complementary medicine appears to have won the support of close to 70 per cent of the electorate.

The passport vote came about after a broad political coalition challenged parliament's decision to adopt the new travel document - in line with the European Union - and set up a fingerprint register.

Members of the European single border area, including Switzerland, are required to introduce new biometric passports by next March. The travel document should also allow visa-free entry into the United States.

Security concerns

Centre-left politicians have dismissed government assurances that the data would not be used in criminal investigations.

"The private sphere has to be respected, citizens must not be treated like criminals," cautioned Social Democratic parliamentarian Carlo Sommaruga.

Daniel Vischer of the Green Party criticised the Swiss government for its "pre-emptive obedience", saying only very few countries were setting up a central fingerprint register.

The Social Democrats and Greens have the backing of the rightwing Swiss People's Party as well as the youth chapters of other political groups.

Data protection officials and information security specialists have also warned of abuse by hackers and the illegitimate use of data by police and other state agencies.

Opponents on the right warned that the new travel document could enable the state to interfere in the private sphere of citizens.

Travel freedom

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who led the "yes" campaign, argued electronic passports were a way to prevent abuse. She had the backing of the main centre-right parties and the Swiss expatriate community.

"It will become more difficult to use someone else's stolen passport," she said.

The minister claims the new travel document is sufficiently protected against forgery and abuse and the central fingerprint database will help speed up passport procedures.

Switzerland has issued 3.9 million passports since 2003. Some 13,000 are reported lost every year.

The government also pointed out that the electronic passport would help ensure travel freedom for Swiss citizens.

The Swiss Business Federation and the tourism industry warned that a rejection by voters would harm the key export industry and could discourage non-European tourists from visiting Switzerland.

swissinfo.ch with Urs Geiser

In brief

Besides the ballot on electronic passports voters also have the final say on a proposal demanding the promotion of alternative medicines (see above).

Votes also take place in 15 of the country's 26 cantons on issues including tax, education, transport, justice, a smoking ban as well as the right to vote for 16-year olds.

The city of Zurich will decide on a SFr200 million credit for wind energy, while a culture centre, including artists' workshops, is the subject of a local vote in the capital, Bern.

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Complementary medicine vote

The proposal seeks to promote alternative medicines, including traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, herbal and neural therapies.

Incomplete results on Sunday showed the proposal would pass, with approximately 67% of the vote and the backing of all cantons.

Supporters argue such forms of treatment should be covered by the compulsory health insurance.

Opponents say including these forms of treatment would put more financial strain on the health system.

Most political parties, except for the rightwing Swiss People's Party, supported the proposal.

The government also recommended a yes vote but says alternative treatments must be effective, reasonably priced and appropriate to be included in the list of paid health services.

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