For a better world – and party political ends

Campaigners for less salary disparity within companies hand in their signatures. The final say on the initiative is up to the voters Keystone

Next Friday campaigners are to hand in the necessary signatures for the introduction of an inheritance tax across the country. It is the latest drive mainly by the political left and civil society to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

This content was published on February 10, 2013 - 11:00

At least five like-minded initiatives will continue to make the news headlines over the next few months. A political trend or simply a fluke on the political agenda?

The move by a coalition of trade unions and centre-left parties to tax assets and property worth more than SFr2 million ($2.2 million) that is passed on to heirs will be followed just two weeks later by a ballot box decision on a proposal to rein in top earners in the corporate world.

On March 3 voters will have the final say on the highly controversial initiative by a self-declared anti-establishment champion, businessman Thomas Minder.

Also pending is another proposal to limit manager wages by setting a maximum 1:12 ratio between the highest and lowest salaries in a company.

Separate initiatives are aimed at scrapping the preferential tax system for wealthy foreign residents and at introducing a minimum salary nationwide.

Dates for ballot box decisions on the issues will be set once the proposals have been discussed by the cabinet and parliament.

Unconditional basic income

Campaigners have been out in the streets to win public support for what is arguably one of most unusual initiatives of recent years.

The group, which has no support from any major political party or organisation, is trying to force a vote on the introduction of an unconditional monthly income of SFr2,500 for everyone living in Switzerland.

Dismissed by many as a utopian idea, it is not expected to win a majority at the ballot box.

However, half-way through the statutory 18-month campaign the group said it had collected about 70,000 signatures.

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Ueli Mäder, professor of sociology at Basel University, is convinced that the host of similar political moves is much more than just a coincidence.

“It shows how social inequalities have worsened. For instance when it comes to wealth and available income,” he says.

Even though unemployment in Switzerland is low compared with other European countries – currently just over three per cent – Mäder notes the economic crisis is unsettling many people.

Joblessness is also the main public concern in Switzerland, according to a regular survey published by bank Credit Suisse last December.

The frustration is growing as they hope for change which has not come. Many less fortunate people are angered by the high manager salaries. Mäder believes there is concern about possible socially harmful tensions.

“This can lead to more selfish attitudes, but the anger also makes people more prone to populist ideas. There lies a real danger.”

He says there are fears among parts of the well-off population that industrial peace could be in danger and that social cohesion could break down.

Particularly the young generation is put off if a few privileged people get into high positions earning high salaries without making a special effort.

Economic justice, says Mäder, is all about creating a social equilibrium.

“A just and fair society is a society where as many people as possible live in good conditions.” 


For political scientist Georg Lutz of Lausanne University, the initiatives are not only a logical backlash following years of neo-liberalism and a widening of social differences. He also notes well-known political mechanisms at work.

“The initiatives are an attempt to narrow the widening gap between those at the top and those at the bottom,” he says.

“At the same time, the left is also trying to cash in on the resentment among the population.”

Since it was launched outside the traditional leftwing political spectrum, the proposal to curb manager salaries by boosting shareholder rights is not only the most unusual attempt, it also stands a good chance of being accepted by voters, according to Lutz.

A recent opinion poll by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation found a two-to-one majority for the so-called fat cat initiative.

As for the majority of initiatives which do not succeed at the ballot box, Lutz highlights two seemingly complementary elements.

“They help launch a broad discussion about a topic and at the same time they draw public attention to the activities of a political group,” he says.

Initiatives galore

A record number of initiatives was handed in last year. A total of 13 proposals won the necessary number of signatures to be put to a nationwide vote.

That’s more than twice as much as the average figure over the previous two decades.

However, 2012 also marked the failure of a record ten initiatives as campaigners failed to collect at least 100,000 signatures within 18 months.

Campaigns for at least 16 other proposals are underway at the moment.

A total of 412 initiatives were launched in Swiss history, 182 have come to a nationwide ballot by February 2013. Only 19 of them won a majority at the ballot box according to figures by the Federal Chancellery.

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