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Cantons play decisive role in UN vote

Yes or No? The Swiss voted on joining the United Nations on Sunday Keystone

Although exit polls show a majority of voters in favour of joining the United Nations, the cantons hold the decisive vote.

This content was published on March 3, 2002 - 14:20

For Swiss membership of the UN to go ahead, a simple majority of the popular vote is not enough - a majority of Switzerland's 26 cantons have to say yes as well.

Campaigning in the swing cantons like Lucerne was especially intense, as both sides tried to mobilise every vote. In the end, the canton voted yes by a tiny majority of 51 per cent.

Neutrality a big issue

The local newspaper the "Neue Luzerner Zeitung" has been actively campaigning in favour of UN membership, and deputy editor Stefan Ragaz says the pro-UN line has brought a lot of reader reaction.

"We are getting hundreds of letters," Ragaz told swissinfo. "They are evenly split, but the ones that are against the UN are very emotional. A big issue is Swiss neutrality.

"This is a very conservative part of the country and many people feel Switzerland has done very well in the past, without the UN, so they don't want to take the risk of voting for something new.

"And we see a split between the urban and rural areas," he added. "Here in the city of Lucerne I think voters will say yes to the UN, but out in the country it's a different story."

"No" posters everywhere

Travelling around rural areas of canton Lucerne, the strength of the campaign against the UN is clear. Outside nearly every village there are posters urging voters to reject membership, many produced by the Swiss People's Party.

The aggressive tone of some of the campaign posters has caused controversy - one shows an axe smashing Swiss neutrality. But at a People's Party meeting in the town of Hochdorf, the campaign secretary of the No campaign in canton Lucerne, Renee Arnold, says she believes the images work.

"Our research shows that if you address the voter in this way, with images like the axe, they will become concerned, and want to know the facts that lie behind the images," Arnold told swissinfo.

But Arnold denied that the campaign was designed to frighten voters into voting no. "Of course we don't want to frighten them," she said. "But we want to make them aware of the issue, and the key issue in this campaign is neutrality."

The Swiss People's Party is campaigning on a platform of protecting Swiss neutrality and sovereignty, claiming that UN membership will undermine these two things by requiring Switzerland to obey UN Security Council resolutions.

Solidarity more important

But these arguments don't carry weight with the campaign in favour of UN membership. Brigitte Müller, who has been working for the campaign in her village of Hildisrieden, believes it's time Switzerland got more involved with the world.

"The 189 countries which are already members of the UN can't all be wrong," Müller said. "Here in Switzerland we always seem to want to take the best of organisations without really giving anything in return. This is wrong - we have to do something for the world too."

Müller is confident that, when all the votes are counted, canton Lucerne will come out in favour of UN membership.

"And I think the greatest success would be if the yes vote also showed a clear rejection of the negative campaigning we have seen," Müller told swissinfo. "The campaign by the People's Party has been so unfair - it's really not the way we should do things because it prevents debate."

Close result

Stefan Ragaz of the Neue Luzerner Zeitung also believes canton Lucerne will say yes in the end. "But it's going to be very close."

At the headquarters of the no campaign, there is also a feeling that defeat may lie ahead. The meeting in Hochdorf only attracted a handful of people, all of whom had already made up their minds to vote against the UN, so no new votes were won over. Still, Renee Arnold predicts an evenly split result.

"I think it will be 50 - 50," she said. "But it's very hard to tell, things are changing all the time. We still hope for a no."

Warning to the Swiss government

But Arnold has a word of warning for the Swiss government if the vote does go in favour of UN membership.

"We will be keeping a very close eye on what they do," she said. "We will be analysing any attempt to join other international institutions. And we hope that they will send good delegates to the UN in New York, people who will really stand up for Switzerland's neutrality. We don't want puppets."

For Stefan Ragaz, these words are a reminder that what Switzerland needs most of all is a debate over what its traditional neutrality really means nowadays.

"We have tried many times to get this debate going, but it's very difficult. For older people who remember the Second World War, it's as if we are challenging their most sacred beliefs.

"But the point about UN membership for me," Ragaz continued, "is that whether we are neutral or not, we cannot ignore the problems around the world. Many of them, like those in the Balkans, affect us; the refugees come here."

"So we can't any longer stay out of the UN, close our eyes, and pretend it's none of our business."

by Imogen Foulkes

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