Cabinet "avoided necessary debate" over Islam

Secret ballots are a key element of direct democracy RDB

The proposal for a minaret ban was treated too hastily by the Swiss authorities, who have to take part of the blame for the result of a nationwide vote says a political commentator.

This content was published on December 6, 2009 minutes

In an interview with, Oswald Sigg, a former government spokesman and expert on direct democracy, criticises cabinet ministers and warns of the dangers of opinion polls ahead of nationwide votes and the damage for Switzerland’s political system.

Sigg believes the unexpected result in last Sunday’s ballot can be beneficial if it prompts a fair debate about Muslim immigration and integration as well as direct democracy.

On November 29 a majority of voters defied the government and parliament by approving a rightwing proposal to ban the construction of minarets. The outcome was seen as a shock and led to reactions from across the world.

During his professional career Sigg served as spokesman for several government ministers and the cabinet. He also held senior positions in various media companies.

He has written regular columns in a renowned Sunday newspaper since his retirement in April 2009. As a keen observer of political life and insider of the federal administration were you also surprised by the outcome of the vote?

Oswald Sigg: Absolutely. But I have always been extremely poor at predicting results. I have never had the gift to read the public mood.

I did wonder though when members of my family told me what they heard from people around them who openly backed the initiative.

I mistakenly thought this was widely exaggerated. I based my opinion on the discussions in the cabinet and the administration I witnessed as cabinet spokesman.

A year ago the government argued, notably for foreign political reasons, that this initiative was not right moment to have a fundamental debate about Islam in Swiss society. A serious mistake?

O.S.: It was clearly wrong to rush the discussions in cabinet and parliament and submit the initiative right away. But with hindsight you always know better.

It appears that citizens began to be suspicious about the fast-track procedure and wondered whether the government was trying to prevent a real debate.

As a rule it takes up to three years between the handing in of the signatures collected for a people’s initiative and the nationwide vote.

It would have wise to have a wide-ranging discussion about all the issues raised in the context of the initiative – including the wearing of headscarves in public. But there were concerns within government and parliament that this would add fuel to cause of the [anti-minaret] campaigners. What do you make of the reactions in Switzerland in the wake of the vote?

O.S.: Considering readers’ comments in newspapers and what you hear elsewhere I’m confident the vote has triggered the extensive public discussion the cabinet tried to suppress before the vote.

Of course there is a wide range of opinions expressed in public now. But I’m pleased that nobody has seriously asked to annul the ballot result.

Citizens uphold and defend the principle of direct democracy and one of its key elements, the people’s initiative. So something good has come out of the vote?

O.S.: What we see now is a public discussion about Islam and direct democracy. I say this although I strongly reject the political intentions and extremist demands by the anti-minaret campaigners.

But such dangerous tendencies can only be contained through dialogue among the religions and if all sides join forces to seek a solution. Would a vote on a minaret ban have a similar outcome in other European countries?

O.S.: No doubt. I was shocked at the racist and spiteful tone during a discussion about Islam and integration I witnessed during a recent visit to Berlin.

Other countries envy Switzerland for its system of direct democracy which gives citizens a say in political issues. Should there not be safeguards to prevent abuses and votes about proposals which clearly go against human rights?

O.S.: To the best of my knowledge the anti-minaret ban does not in breach the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Legal experts were divided, but because there were doubts the authorities preferred to proceed - quite rightly in my view – with a vote. It is borderline I admit, but it is justifiable in political, moral and legal terms. Are we witnessing the beginning of a sea-change in relations between the West and the Muslim world?

O.S.: It is a break in the history of ballots in Switzerland. Citizens blatantly defied the government and parliament.

A statement by President Hans-Rudolf Merz who doubted whether every valid initiative has to be brought to a vote risks upsetting the very basis of our political system. Equally jarring was an apparent apology by the foreign minister for the result of last Sunday’s vote. But it is not an easy task to justify the outcome of the vote?

O.S.: Obviously not, if the government has to explain a decision it was strongly opposed to. It is a matter of style and how to go about it.

In our system the roles are clear: The government must carry out decisions by parliament and the people. There is no two ways around this. What role should opinion polls, which were quite spectacularly out in the case of the minaret vote, play?

O.S.: I think opinion polls and similar surveys in the immediate run-up to a vote should not be part of our democracy.

All players involved in public ballots should agree to end polls about five weeks before the vote when campaigning usually begins. Opinion polls can discourage voters and such surveys can even adversely influence the official ballot.

Urs Geiser and Federico Bragagnini, (adapted from German)

Oswald Sigg

Sigg served as spokesman to five different cabinet ministers during his 30-year professional career.

He was the official government spokesman from 2005 to April 2009 when he retired at the age of 65.

In the late 1980s and much of the 1990s Sigg was editor-in-chief of the main Swiss news agency, ATS, and worked as spokesman for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SBC, the parent company of swissinfo.

Sigg studied in Fribourg, Bern and Paris and graduated in sociology and economics. He wrote a doctoral thesis on people’s initiatives.

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