Government admits defeat in Sunday's votes

The brakes have been applied to government plans Keystone Archive

Switzerland's government and parliament suffered a crushing blow on Sunday after voters threw out all three of their proposals and recommendations.

This content was published on January 29, 2004 - 14:20

Voters turned down plans to ease traffic congestion and to change the law on rents, but voted in favour of a people's initiative to lock up violent offenders for life.

The Swiss president, Joseph Deiss, said that both the people and the cantons had given an unambiguous thumbs down to the government and parliament in Sunday's nationwide votes.

He added that the goverment would take notice of the message from voters.

Political analyst Jeremias Blaser said the scale of the government's defeat had been surprising, but that not too much should be read into it.

"It's very difficult to say whether this marks the start of constant opposition to government proposals," he told swissinfo. "I think it's just another day when the government lost - it happens once in a while."

The outcome was also unusual because French- and German-speaking cantons voted the same way. Often the results are different on either side of the "Röstigraben" - the imaginary divide between the two regions.

In Blaser's view, the "Röstigraben" is evoked too often to explain difference within Switzerland. "The Röstigraben is always particularly visible when there are issues about [Switzerland's] international engagements or the role of the state.

"But this was not the case in Sunday's votes, so it's no surprise that there wasn't a difference [between the two regions]."

Transport failure

All 26 cantons and 62.8 per cent of voters rejected a plan by the government and parliament to ease traffic congestion by spending up to SFr350 million annually to improve the country’s main roads and public transport.

The plan included a second road tunnel through the Gotthard – Switzerland’s main north-south axis through the Alps - which was included in the proposal following pressure by parliament.

The transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger, said the second Gotthard tunnel was the main reason that voters threw out the proposal, but added he was confident that voters had not rejected the other measures put forward.

Alf Arnold, the head of the opponents' group, agreed that the second tunnel - criticised as costly and damaging to the environment - was the main reason for the "no" outcome.

He added that he was surprised that the opponents had obtained such a clear majority.

For its part, the parliamentary committee which lobbied for the initiative said in a statement that the result was a missed opportunity. It added that the rejection would reinforce the gap between private and public transport, preventing a more integrated transport policy.

Rents

All cantons and 64 per cent of voters also rejected the second government-backed proposal to link rents to inflation rather than mortgage rates.

Deiss, also economics minister, said he regretted the result and that the present law was insufficient and needed to be revised.

The government had argued that the change would put an end to landlords being able to raise rents every time there was an increase in mortgages, but failing to reduce rents when there was a drop in the rates.

Rudolf Strahm, head of the country's main tenant's association, said a "yes" vote would have made it easier for landlords to raise rents.

Opponents had also warned the change would lead to increased costs for most of the Swiss population – 70 per cent of whom live in rented accommodation.

Violent offenders

The third issue the Swiss voted on was a people’s initiative to lock up violent offenders for life if deemed a danger to society following a psychological test.

There was strong support for the proposal - a majority of the cantons and 56.2 per cent of voters - dealing an unexpected blow to the government, which opposed the plan. Only two cantons, Basel City and Vaud rejected the initiative.

Christoph Blocher, the new justice minister, whose own rightwing People’s Party had backed the initiative, said the outcome showed that the population mistrusted the current penal system.

He added that the laws would now be changed to take account of the result.

The government did not back the plan because it believed that its own revision of the criminal law for 2006 was sufficient.

It was also concerned that the proposed changes would undermine Switzerland’s commitment to international human rights treaties.

People's initiatives tend to be rejected at the ballot box - this latest vote is only the 14th initiative to be accepted since 1848.

The last people's initiative to be passed was two years ago when the Swiss voted to join the United Nations.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

Key facts

The Swiss normally vote four times a year on national policy issues.
The last time the Swiss went to the polls was on October 19, 2003 to cast their ballots in parliamentary elections.

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In brief

All cantons rejected the government's and parliament's transport proposal and a plan to change the law on rents.

Voting results: 62.8% against the transport proposal, 64% against the rent plan, 56.2% for the offenders' initiative.

Voter turnout was 45%.

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