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Five lessons from the Swiss ‘responsible business’ vote

The coronavirus pandemic has made people more conservative with their voting. Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

The battle over the responsible business initiative is now over. The way the campaign was managed and how the issue was eventually decided says a lot about Switzerland.

This content was published on November 30, 2020 - 17:33

On November 29, 50.7% of Swiss voters backed an initiative to extend liability over international human rights abuses and environmental harm caused by major Swiss companies and the firms they control abroad. But the proposal failed to win support in a majority of cantons, a necessary condition for a public initiative to be enacted in Switzerland.

Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s vote.

Crises stimulate caution

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The responsible business initiative has suffered the fate of most people’s initiatives: in the end, the result was “No”. Even if it was close. Even if the opinion polls before the vote suggested a different result. Even if it wasn’t decided by a majority of voters, but a majority of cantons.

Analyses of the previous round of votes held in September revealed that the pandemic has made Swiss voters more cautious. Viewed from abroad, Switzerland (with its full coffers and modest debts) appears well-equipped to throw billions into supporting the economy. But the surprising violence of the second wave has made it clear that the crisis is more devastating and draining for the wealthy country than initially assumed.

The age-old rule applies: in times of crisis people cling on to the familiar. The Swiss people have demonstrated that they are hardly willing to experiment.

“Swing state” factor

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Switzerland appears fragmented. There is the “Röstigraben” (division between German and French-speaking parts of the country), the urban-rural divide, and even a moat sitting between the mountains and valleys (as demonstrated by the result of the proposed hunting law changes in September).

But the responsible business initiative campaign revealed a more nuanced political geography. There were decidedly “Yes” and “No” cantons, and some that were clearly undecided. Political scientists spoke of “swing states”. These cantons were to prove decisive as they play a similar role to the electors in the US presidential vote.

Both campaigns focused their efforts on these undecided cantons just before the vote. As a citizen living abroad, there was no way to detect the ferocity with which this happened because the messages were targeted at local regions. Such specific fine tuning is a new phenomenon in Switzerland, opening up new dimensions for future campaigning.

Novel campaigning reaches new lows

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The responsible business initiative campaign was unusual in several regards. It was “probably the most expensive voting campaign of all time,” according to political scientist Lukas Golder. The proponents blitzed entire districts with orange flags. At the individual level, they sent emails and leveraged social media to ensure that each sympathiser also activated their friends and family.

The initiative’s opponents also employed new and complex strategies. Not only did they wheel out Glencore’s chief executive officer to speak against the initiative, but also the Minister of Economic Affairs from Burkina Faso and an economist from Colombia. At the same time, targeted videos appeared on social media poking fun at humanitarian organisations.

The polarisation of Switzerland revealed itself in new dimensions. The time-honoured etiquette that was traditionally displayed during political debates has been eroded and is at risk.

Doubts will continue to resurface

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The weapons financing and responsible business initiatives expected the economy to behave like Swiss shoppers. For years, sustainability, fair trade and organic products have become more popular with consumers. Swiss consumers can easily afford this - food accounts for only 7% of the average income. But what about the corporate world?

The paradigm shift from dirty money to clean has worked in the financial centre. Many people hope this will translate into climate awareness in the capital market or more humane investments by the Swiss National Bank.

The economy has responded sporadically to this growing demand – banks, for example, are offering sustainable finance products. But the country has so far been held back at legislative level. Sunday’s vote reinforced the fact that many Swiss are becoming increasingly uneasy about the economy. Expect to see this expressed in future popular initiatives.

Every vote counts - including those of the Swiss Abroad

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Sunday also highlighted the nuances between Swiss people living abroad and domestic citizens. In the 12 cantons that detail voting behaviour of the Swiss Abroad, foreign votes resulted in a clear “Yes” to the responsible business initiative (57.3%) along with a “Yes” to the weapons financing initiative (50.7%). This compares to a 50.7% and 42.5% Yes to each initiative when counting all votes.

In both cases, the votes from abroad could not have overturned the result. Not even if all voting envelopes had reached the polls - which is never the case. Only in the case of very tight results, such as last weekend’s responsible business initiative and September’s fighter jet vote, is it clear that every vote counts not only in theory but in reality. The fight that the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) has been waging for decades to obtain voting rights is a fight for Swiss democracy.

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