Political reforms give voters a headache

It's all about money and responsibilities in the vote on the federal reform Keystone

Voters are to decide on major reforms to Switzerland’s political system, redressing the balance of power between the federal and cantonal authorities.

This content was published on November 19, 2004 - 16:03

But the complexity of the issues at stake on November 28 appears to have overwhelmed many voters.

The reforms are aimed at redefining who is responsible for a wide range of policy areas, including social security, welfare, education, transport, environment and culture.

At stake is a total of SFr17 billion ($14.5 billion) in annual subsidies and payments.

The proposals are also designed to promote more cooperation among the regions and redress the balance between the richer and poorer cantons.

Under Switzerland’s political system, the country’s 26 cantons and the federal government share responsibilities and all have the right to levy taxes.

Transparent, efficient

Trix Heberlein, a senator for canton Zurich, voted with the majority when parliament approved the proposals last year.

“The current system of payments and responsibilities has become very complex and has lacked transparency over the years,” she told swissinfo.

“By giving the cantons more autonomy, we want the funds to be used more efficiently.”

Heberlein says the gap between the different cantons has widened under the current system, which was introduced almost 50 years ago.

“Sometimes you are no longer sure whether subsidies are really used for the purpose they were planned,” she said.

Disabled pay price

Many groups representing the disabled are opposed to the reforms. They argue that handicapped people living in special institutions would suffer from decentralisation.

“It is hard to see how 26 different solutions – one for each canton – can be better than one standardised national approach,” said Mirjam Aebischer of the leading anti-reform campaign group.

“We fear that many of the cantons, especially those which are looking at ways to cut spending, will not use the money for the disabled.”

Opponents voiced their criticism during a major demonstration in the capital, Bern, last month.

The federal authorities plan to hand over a total of SFr2 billion from the invalidity benefit scheme to the cantons, leaving it up to the regional authorities to decide how they distribute the money.

Other critics of the reforms, notably the centre-left Social Democrats, complain that the planned redistribution of funds doesn’t go far enough and will eventually widen the gap between richer and poorer regions.

Only the small canton of Zug, which has a reputation as a tax haven, has publicly sided with the opposition. It argues that it would have to pay too much into the pool for less well-off regions.

Undecided voters

Opinion polls show a large number of people are still undecided whether to accept or reject the reforms.

Georg Lutz, a political scientist at Bern University, says the findings are not surprising.

“With complex issues like these reforms, it is common for voters to make up their minds at the very end. Another likely scenario is that people don’t go to the polls,” Lutz told swissinfo.

He acknowledged that a vote on intergovernmental fiscal transfers was stretching the limits of direct democracy. But Lutz said voters would not be left completely in the dark.

“They can rely on party guidance or the proposals of important interest groups.”

Lutz added that the election of members of parliament often presented a bigger challenge for voters, since this meant handing over power and influence to politicians for four years.


The political scientist said those backing the reforms had found it difficult to persuade the average voter of the benefits.

“This is partly down to the nature of the issue. So far, the campaign by the groups representing the disabled has been much more visible,” said Lutz.

“Part of me fears that people think it’s only a vote about whether to cut subsidies to the disabled and their organisations.”

But Heberlein, who has been a parliamentarian for 13 years, is confident that voters can see the wood for the trees.

“I guess the Swiss realise what is at stake, and they see that a lot of money is given away without achieving its aim.”

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

The federal and cantonal authorities share responsibilities and levy separate taxes under the Swiss federal system.
The more than 30 policy areas include welfare, social security, education, transport, and environment.
At stake are annual payments worth SFr17 billion ($14.5 billion).

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In brief

Supporters of the reforms say they will improve Switzerland’s federal system, making it more efficient and transparent, and bolstering the power of the cantons.

Opponents argue the proposals will widen the gap between rich and poor regions, and that disabled people will lose out.

The cabinet, parliament, three of the four main political parties and the business community are in favour, the Centre-left and the unions have come out against.

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