Voters have overwhelmingly rejected a reform of the occupational pension scheme in an upset for the government and a majority in parliament.
In two other ballots, the Swiss also threw out a plan for special attorneys to defend the right of animals. However, a constitutional amendment on human research was adopted.
Final results show nearly 73 per cent of voters dismissing a cut in pension benefits. Turnout was on average 45 per cent.
The proposed reductions, agreed by a majority in parliament last year, were challenged to a referendum by a broad coalition of consumer groups, trade unions and centre-left political parties.
“The verdict is a clear signal to the government and parliament to maintain a solid social security system,” said the Social Democratic Party.
Paul Rechsteiner, president of the Trade Union Federation, said it showed that voters were not prepared to accept the expensive bureaucracy of insurance companies and excessive manager bonuses.
Rechsteiner vowed to continue the fight against further attempts to undermine other pillars of the country’s welfare scheme, including the old age pensions, or unemployment benefits.
For his part Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter, whose remit includes social security, the result did not mean the end of reforms, but the beginning of a long process.
“The government insists on a sustainable consolidation of the social security system in the next few years,” he told a news conference.
“We have to learn the lessons from the vote and try to win back the confidence of the voters. It won’t be easy, but it is possible,” Burkhalter added.
Supporters of the reform – centre-right and right wing parties as well as the business community - described the result as a “punitive action” against the government and a majority in parliament, but said the defeat did not come as much of a surprise.
“It was impossible to win the vote with reasonable arguments in the current political climate and the financial crisis,” said Gerold Bührer, president of the Business Federation which led the campaign in favour.
He warned that the problem of fewer funds for an ageing population would not go away.
Political scientist Claude Longchamp pointed out that it is the government that has suffered one of its worst defeats in recent history.
“Only six other government proposals obtained fewer yes votes,” he told public radio. He added that most voters had feared for their pensions.
Both supporters and opponents ran expensive and high-profile campaigns ahead of Sunday’s vote.
The electorate was asked to decide on reducing the so called minimum conversion rate by about 0.6 per cent to 6.4 per cent by 2016.
The occupational pension, which is part of a three-tier scheme including the old age pension and individual savings plans, was made mandatory in 1985 and was subject to a revamp seven years ago.
Enough animal rights
A constitutional amendment to improve the legal standing of animals was also overwhelmingly rejected. The initiative was launched by a leading animal rights organisation and tried to institutionalise the position of special attorney in the country’s 26 cantons.
Switzerland would have been the first country in the world to introduce mandatory animal lawyers. But now Zurich remains the only canton with such an attorney.
Animal rights groups said they were very disappointed with the result, while opponents argued that voters had acted reasonably.
“Many voters might have been a bit fed up with the topic,” said Antoine Goetschel who has held the position of animal lawyer in Zurich since 2007.
But Economics Minister Doris Leuthard, in charge of veterinary issues, said citizens had acknowledged that existing animal rights were sufficient and that they agreed with the government’s policy of preventing animal cruelty.
The groups fighting the proposal argued that introducing special attorneys would lead to a flood of unjustified legal cases and infringe the autonomy of the cantonal authorities.
A separate proposal by the government and parliament on the legal principles of human research passed overwhelmingly. It had prompted little public controversy ahead of the ballot.
The constitutional amendment aims to preserve human dignity in biomedical experiments while ensuring freedom of research.
It sets the basis for more detailed cantonal legislation on transplantations, gene technology and stem cell research at a later stage.
Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch
Results in detail:
Yes: 27.3%; No: 72.7%
Yes: 29.5%; No: 70.5%
Yes: 77.2%; No: 22.8%
Some five million Swiss, including registered expatriates, were eligible to take part in the nationwide ballots.
Just under 18,300 citizens in four cantons used electronic voting as part of ongoing trials with online methods.
The Swiss Abroad were less opposed to the pension reform as figures from six cantons show.
Ballots on a wide range of issues, as well as elections, took place in more than half of the country’s 26 cantons and in numerous cities and communes.
As a rule ballots take place four times a year.