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Reitschule Bern’s divisive culture centre likely headed to court

Bern's cultural centre, known as the Reitschule, has been a source of controversy for decades


Instead of voters, the Supreme Court could now have the final say on a rightwing proposal to close down a controversial culture venue in the Swiss capital Bern.

The centre, known as the Reitschule, was recently the site of riots over squatters’ rights that caused injuries and hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs in damage.

In a very rare occurrence, Bern’s cantonal parliament recently turned down a people’s initiative calling for a vote on shutting down the centre, deeming it invalid. Furious, the backers of the initiative – members of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party – announced plans to challenge the decision in court.

For years, opponents mainly from the political right have been pressuring city authorities to shut the Reitschule, arguing it is a hotbed of leftwing militants and troublemakers. But their proposals to close the venue have been rejected in at least five local votes since 1990.

The building, which dates back to the late 19th century, used to be a stable for horses and a depot for coaches used by city authorities. Squatters first occupied it in the 1980s.

Today, the centre is arguably one of the liveliest late-night and weekend venues in Switzerland, but it has also regularly been the scene of skirmishes with police. Last month, rioting squatters allegedly used the centre as a hiding place.

Legally compatible?

Opponents of the Reitschule are confident they will win their court case because of findings in a report by a legal expert. But a former senior judge doubts the Federal Court will overrule Bern’s cantonal parliament.

"The initiative is not compatible with basic legal principles," says Giusep Nay, former Supreme Court judge.

It ignores the separation of powers and the concept that punishment must fit the crime.

Also the organisers of the cultural centre must have a say in the proceedings, Nay argues.

The People’s Party handed in its initiative to close the Reitschule a year ago with more than 17,000 signatures. Specifically, it calls for a CHF54 million ($54.1 million) cut in subsidies for the city of Bern from public coffers if the autonomous cultural centre is not closed down.

Local autonomy

Following a two-day debate, a clear majority of Bern’s cantonal parliament rejected the initiative to close down the Reitschule, saying it interferes with a Swiss system of financial payments flowing between wealthier and less affluent municipalities.

Leftwing and centrist parties had the upper hand in throwing out the initiative. Three political parties, including the People’s Party, voted in favour of letting voters have the final say.

Both sides presented separate legal reports to prove their points.

Several speakers argued the parliament had a responsibility to protect the integrity of the people’s initiative, which they said is one of the most precious political tools available in Switzerland.

“I’m pleased to see that the parliament upheld the autonomy of the municipalities,” Bern’s newly elected mayor, Alec von Graffenried, said after the debate. But he acknowledged that more needs to be done to boost security around the centre.

Erich Hess, a senior People’s Party representative from canton Bern, argued parliament’s decision was purely politically motivated and failed to look at the issue from a strictly legal perspective.

“The cantonal government is afraid voters will approve the initiative,” he said.


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