Voters have the final say on Sunday on a reform of the occupational pension scheme opposed by a coalition of the centre-left parties, unions and consumer groups.
In two other ballots, the Swiss will decide on the creation of special attorneys to defend animal rights in legal cases and on a constitutional amendment on human research.
The proposed cuts in occupational benefits, agreed by a majority in parliament last year, were challenged to a referendum by the collection of more than 200,000 signatures.
The centre-left says the fight against lower benefits is a key aspect of their efforts to halt attacks on the country’s welfare system.
It says the plan is tantamount to “benefits theft” by the business community and the insurance industry in particular.
But supporters, including the government and most centre-right and rightwing parties, have argued that the reform is necessary to ensure the future of the pension scheme. Rejection would undermine the country’s unique social security scheme and threaten economic prosperity, they argue.
Under the proposal, annual occupational pension benefits, also known as the second pillar, will be reduced to make up for an ageing population and for lower revenue from investment.
High profile campaigns
Voters were asked to decide on reducing the so called minimum conversion rate by about 0.6 per cent to 6.4 per cent by 2016.
This technical ratio is used to calculate the annual pension based on accumulated capital. In practice new pensions of low income earners would be cut by several hundred francs.
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.
The run-up to Sunday’s vote was marked by an unusually early campaign launch by supporters of the pension reform. It is estimated that they spent about SFr10 million ($9.3 million) on posters, advertisements and other political marketing elements.
For their part, unions and the centre-left Social Democrats ran a high-profile campaign with leaflets, online gadgets, brochures and public events organised by the grassroots.
A constitutional amendment to come to a vote on Sunday seeks to boost the legal standing of animals. The initiative was launched by a leading animal rights organisation and is aimed at institutionalising the position of special attorney in the country’s 26 cantons.
Supporters say the current laws are not strong enough to crack down on animal cruelty - allegations rejected by opponents.
However, opponents argue adoption of the proposal would lead to a wave of legal cases and infringe the autonomy of the cantonal authorities.
The centre-left Social Democrats and the Greens have recommended a yes vote, while the government and a majority of the centre-right and rightwing parties have come out against it – albeit with a fair number of dissenting voices.
Switzerland would be the first country in the world to introduce mandatory animal lawyers. So far Zurich is the only canton with such an attorney.
A separate proposal by the government and parliament on the legal principles of human research has prompted little public controversy ahead of the ballot.
The constitutional amendment aims at preserving human dignity in biomedical experiments while ensuring freedom of research.
The amendment is to set the basis for more detailed cantonal legislation on transplantations, gene technology and stem cell research at a later stage.
Supporters stress the need to streamline regulations and to consult experts on bioethics to define the scope of the regulations.
Opponents, notably from the centre-left, have criticised the perceived lack of protection for people who cannot give informed consent to experiments, including children and the mentally handicapped.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party has warned of interference by the federal authorities in cantonal matters.
Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch
March 7 votes
Some five million Swiss, including registered expatriates, are eligible to cast ballots in the nationwide votes on pension reform, animal rights and human research.
Votes on a wide range of issues, as well as elections, are taking 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.