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Wings of air force clipped in nationwide ballot

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Voters have rejected the purchase of Swedish fighter jets for Switzerland’s air force. It is the first major defeat for the government in a ballot on military matters for 20 years.

Final results show 53.4% of voters came out against the acquisition of 22 JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets by the Swedish Saab company.

Political analyst Claude Longchamp of the leading GfS Bern research and polling institute says opposition by both the political left and some centrist parties made the difference.

“It gives the armed forces something to think about,” says Longchamp. It is the first time that the left, who had challenged a parliament decision to a nationwide vote, has been successful in a military issue.

The defeat for the government and a majority in parliament comes more than 20 years after voters approved the acquisition of F/A-18 fighter jets.


Financial aspect

Opponents of the CHF3.1 billion ($3.5 billion) credit for the Gripen say the ballot box verdict is based on financial aspects, but not a vote against the armed forces.

“A majority of voters decided for financial reasons and against the scaremongering by the defence ministry,” says Evi Allemann, a senior Social Democratic parliamentarian.

The opposition said the purchase and maintenance of the 22 Gripen planes would cost about CHF10 billion – money better spent on education and social security.

Roland Fischer of the centrist Liberal Green Party said the protracted political procedure, including a U-turn by the government, contributed to the result.

“Many technical and financial questions about an acquisition of the Gripen remained unanswered,” he said.

The pacifist Switzerland without an Army group said the outcome of the vote was a step for peace.

FF Results vote May 18, 2014

Nationwide minimum wage

Yes: 23.7%               No: 76.3%

Gripen fighter jets

Yes: 46.6%               No: 53.4%

Ban on convicted paedophiles

Yes: 63.5%               No: 36.5%

Boost for family doctors

Yes: 88.0%               No: 12.0%

Turnout: 55.5%

A limited number of voters, notably the Swiss Abroad, were able to cast their vote online as part of an ongoing trial with e-voting. About 16.6% of them made use of it.

Security gap

However, Defence Minister Ueli Maurer admitted defeat and said it would take time to analyse the result of the vote in detail.

“There seems to be no coherent opinion in the country about our defence policy. It is striking to see the huge differences between the cantons and even within the same canton, ” he said.

Maurer said the No-vote will cause a security gap which the government and parliament will have to consider in the next few months.

He said the outcome was primarily a setback for the government and parliament, but also a personal defeat.

Jakob Büchler a leading centre-right supporter of the Gripen, says the result is a setback for the air force. He said the campaign had failed to show the importance of the vote for the armed forces.

The Gripen was due to replace the fleet of F-5 Tiger aircraft which will be taken out of service by 2017. But Switzerland still has 32 F/A-18 jets as well as 60 Pilatus trainer aircraft, 45 helicopters and 50 drones.

The Swedish Saab company said it respected the vote outcome and hoped to continue “as long as possible” the business relationships in Switzerland created since 2011.

“Under the industrial participation programme, over 500 contracts with 125 Swiss businesses have been arranged,” a statement said.

Saab also said it would pursue with the development and production of 60 Gripen E fighter jets for the Swedish air force, despite Sunday’s result in Switzerland.

Convoluted history

The vote is the latest stage in a convoluted procedure to partially renew the Swiss Air Force.

The government temporarily shelved plans for new jets before it changed its mind. The Gripen was eventually chosen over France’s Rafale and EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon four years ago.

But a logjam continued to delay the acquisition. Although the House of Representatives had given its green light, the Senate blocked it. It was only last September that both parliamentary chambers finally gave their approval.

In the meantime pacifist groups sought to impose a moratorium on the purchase of fighter jets. They had collected enough signatures for a nationwide vote, but decided to withdraw their initiative for tactical reasons.

However, it did not stop an alliance of centre-left groups from challenging the parliamentary decision, collecting the necessary signatures to force a nationwide vote.

Army issues – including conscription, fighter jet acquisitions, arms exports and the keeping of army-issue firearms at home – have enjoyed broad backing at the ballot box.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR