How will the pandemic influence Switzerland’s upcoming votes?

Hands up: voters at a local ballot in Zollikon, canton Zurich, in July. Keystone / Ennio Leanza

The coronavirus has pushed Switzerland – like most countries – into a new normal, including in the realm of politics. With five issues up for a national vote in September, the pandemic has influenced to varying degrees the practice of voting and campaigning as well as voters’ attitudes towards the issues.

This content was published on August 3, 2020 - 11:00

Parliament cut short its spring session as the pandemic broke, unable to guarantee social distancing. The federal government took control of the crisis response, only recently handing back power to the cantons. And national votes, planned for May, were postponed.

Now that the democratic practice of regular votes is set to resume on September 27, to what extent will Covid-19 continue to loom over the process and the results?  

Organisation – business as usual

The Federal Chancellery, responsible for the coordination of national votes, makes just two short mentions of Covid-19 in the official instructions it sent to cantonal authorities on July 1.

It writes that cantons should ensure postal voting material is sent to Swiss living outside the country sooner rather than later, since “dispatches abroad might take longer to arrive due to the pandemic”. Then, it simply says that hygiene and social distancing rules should be heeded when it comes to organising the votes.

Beat Furrer of the Federal Chancellery says the sparse guidelines were arrived at after consultation with the cantons in June. “If the number of cases stabilise and the protective measures were maintained at current levels, then the cantons did not see any significant risks or challenges with regard to the proper implementation of the vote,” he says.

Even before the pandemic, he adds, 90% of votes in many cantons were submitted by post in any case – something that won’t be overly impacted by Covid-19 measures.

At the cantonal level, Alexander Locher from the Zurich Justice Department says it’s still too early to foresee what the virus situation will look like in September. Like many things these days, it’s a case of seeing how the numbers develop. Canton Bern said it hadn’t finished planning whether any special measures were to be taken.

In small canton Glarus meanwhile, a unique voting system calls for unique measures: at its upcoming open-air assembly – a mass outdoor vote attended by up to 9,000 citizens – masks will be mandatory, and everyone participating will have their temperature taken. If it’s higher than 38°C, they will be asked to go home.

Campaigning – not so opportunistic

As for campaigning, political life is currently fairly quiet in Switzerland; it’s the summer break, many are on holidays, and next to no vote posters are to be seen in the streets of Bern.

Mark Balsiger, a seasoned vote watcher now running the “Courage Civil” campaign against the upcoming initiative to limit immigration from the European Union, says this is normal – debates will start heating up in mid-August, before peaking in early September, he says.

But although there has been a massive increase in media consumption during the pandemic, Balsiger says people’s  attention has been very much focused on the disease and its countermeasures, rather than issues up for a vote in September.

This might mean citizens are less aware of the stakes, especially when it comes to the anti-immigration initiative, he says.

Balsiger remembers the historic decision in 1992 – when Switzerland narrowly rejected joining the European Economic Area – and in 2014, when another anti-immigration idea was narrowly approved. On both occasions, campaigning and media coverage had been ramping up long before the votes, which attracted large turnouts – especially in 1992.

However, he and his team are largely sticking to their usual campaign approach. Switzerland is not a country of mass political rallies, and the method remains mainly one of digital promotion, targeted email campaigns, and posters put up in public places like train stations – nothing that Covid-19 will affect.

Nor does Balsiger plan to use Covid-19 as a hook. The pandemic and the lack of media coverage “has not benefited either side more than the other,” he says – and it doesn’t need to be a major issue. The government, which re-launched its campaign against the initiative in June, is also focussing its argument on the importance of economic links between Switzerland and the EU.

So far, those in favour of the initiative haven’t massively latched onto Covid-19 as an argument  either.

The Swiss People’s Party, the idea’s main sponsor, has so far stuck to its frequently argued position of wanting to prevent over-population. The pandemic is not mentioned anywhere in the party’s 15 main arguments for the initiative.

The Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland, the other main group supporting the vote, makes just one mention of Covid-19 on its website. It concludes that the “coronavirus crisis” (quotation marks theirs) clearly shows how the free movement agreement with the EU is “the wrong approach”.

Voters – pandemic on the mind

If the virus is not (yet) a major campaign plank, this isn’t to say it won’t have an impact on voter mood and behaviour.

Political analyst Nenad Stojanović wonders whether a new “sense of insecurity” will boost the chances of voters accepting the CHF6 billion purchase of new fighter jets, also up for a vote on September 27. He also reckons the lockdown has raised the importance – actual and symbolic – of borders for the population. “We could thus easily imagine that the [immigration] initiative has a better chance in September than it had in May,” he writes.

But he also says the sudden retraction of open borders this spring may have highlighted the benefits of free movement, with many voters perhaps more likely to see the People’s Party idea as a step backwards. They may also be wary of doing anything to harm the economy at such a sensitive time.

Stefanie Walter, a University of Zurich professor, supports this second hypothesis.

As part of her “Mass politics of disintegration” project, she surveyed the Swiss population both before and during Covid-19 and found that support for the initiative lost ground during the pandemic. In November 2019, the for-against split was 40.3% vs 59.7%; by May 2020, it had widened to 37.6 vs 62.4%.

Walter says it’s unclear whether Covid-19 had a direct influence on these results. However, her data does indicate that the Swiss are happy with their government (82.1% say so) and how it has handled the pandemic. They are also still quite happy with the economy (62.1%), despite the impact of the lockdown. So, when it comes to Europe, the researcher expects voters will be wary of big change.

“The crisis has highlighted that people like the status quo” and “are happy with what they have”, Walter says – observations backed up by psychological surveys done during the pandemic, which found that positive emotions of satisfaction and gratitude among the population increased more strongly than negative feelings of powerlessness and fear.

Walter believes that when it comes to Europe, all this suggests that “the Swiss don’t want to burn the bridge to a status quo which has so far worked fantastically for them”.

Balsiger, the campaign strategist, is on the same page –literally. The posters which his team unveiled last week feature the image of a gloomy-looking and collapsing bridge, underneath the slogan “breaking bridges to Europe? No”.

Along with much of the anti-anti-immigration camp, he is banking on voters reinforcing Swiss pragmatism and change-aversion during the pandemic. “Because of Covid-19, there is no time for experimentation,” he says.

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