Moutier vote judged an embarrassment for Swiss democracy

What next? The flags of canton Bern, Switzerland and canton Jura Keystone

“Shockwave”, “political earthquake”, “mess”: for the Swiss newspapers, the thwarted attempt by the town of Moutier to change cantonal allegiance via direct democracy has reignited the “Jura Question” and damaged Switzerland’s reputation as a smooth-running democracy machine. 

This content was published on November 6, 2018 - 09:54

In June 2017, almost 52% of voters in Moutier decided (by 137 votes) to leave canton Bern and join canton Jura. However, suspicions were aroused that some people had registered as eligible voters in Moutier without actually living there. On Monday the result was declared void

“Who wins loses”, noted Le Quotidien Jurassien bitterly in an editorial headed “the claw of the prefect”, referring to the district official who had taken the decision on Monday. An accompanying cartoon showed the official manipulated like a puppet by a Bernese bear, which is forcing her to light the fuse of a barrel of explosives marked “Jura Question”. 

The controversy is the latest twist in a long-running territorial dispute in Switzerland. French-speaking Jura became the 26th Swiss canton in 1979 when a separatist movement won a vote to secede from German-speaking canton Bern. Since then, some towns and villages along the border have argued about which canton they should belong to.  

“A legal decision of a political nature", said Le Quotidien Jurassien. But despite this setback, the paper isn’t giving up. “Moutier, nothing is lost,” it said, calling for patience. “The separatist winners of June 18 have lost this battle […] but Moutier is a Jurassian town and will rejoin canton Jura sooner or later. The Pro-Bern camp know they lost the war in Moutier. Disappointed, they’re trying to twist the rules.” 

“L'Impartial / L'Express” reminded readers that the “Bernese government has never accepted the thought of yielding swathes of its cantonal territory without a fight”. For centuries, the bear [Bern] has been able to come to terms with letting go of its prey only after having fought by all means, even if tactics were sometimes dirty”. 

“Predictable”, was the verdict of Arcinfo, for whom “politics influences the law”. In a nutshell, it said, “everything has to be repeated”. 


For Le Temps in Lausanne, it’s a “political earthquake […] that reopens wounds that were assumed healed”. “Moutier can’t afford years of legal proceedings to settle the question of which canton it belongs to. Only a new vote, fair and accepted by all, will get the town out of its current impasse,” it said. 

“The malaise in Moutier is deep. The two sides stare daggers at each other, and trust in the institutions is crumbling,” the paper concluded. 

24 Heures and Tribune de Genève agreed. “In Moutier, the climate of rancour and mistrust will just get worse.” In a joint editorial, they said the whole affair “will just create losers”. 

“The separatists, of course, who have to go to court to try to win the case; canton Jura, whose authorities are yelling about a political scandal; and their counterparts in Bern, who will have to drag around for ages the institutional weight that is Moutier,” they said. 

All of the French press agrees that the issue will end in the Federal Court, but many are wondering whether it wouldn’t just be better to have a revote. 


In German-speaking Switzerland, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung had more understanding for the decision to annul the original vote. “As long as there’s the slightest doubt about the legitimacy of the popular vote, the seed exists for further animosity and unrest.” 

The Tages-Anzeiger, also in Zurich, took a wider view. “More is at stake than just Moutier,” was the headline in its editorial. 

“The case of Moutier is an embarrassment for Switzerland, the model of democracy. Bernese self-righteousness is out of place,” it said. 

“It’s frustrating: we thought the Jura Question had been settled, once and for all, in a democratic manner. […] With the annulation [of the 2017 vote], an attempt at a democratic model solution has failed and the Jura Question become virulent once again.” 

Regarding what it saw as Bernese self-righteousness, the paper pointed to Bern’s behaviour in the 1970s, when it made secret payments to the pro-Bern side, “violating the spirit of democracy.” 

The Tages-Anzeiger hoped that “all sides in divided Moutier would withstand the tension and renounce violence – in the interest of their town and its own political credibility.”

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