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Swiss cast ballots on defence spending and retirement age

The Swiss people have been voting on a total of five federal issues

(Keystone)

Polling has closed in a series of national votes in Switzerland, including a proposed drastic cut in defence spending and moves to make the age of retirement more flexible. First trends are expected shortly.

Voters are widely expected to reject all of the five federal issues, following Sunday's vote.

The main proposal, put forward by left-wing parties as well as peace and development aid groups, foresees slashing the army's current annual budget of SFr5 billion ($2.75 billion) to just over SFr3 billion ($1.7 billion) over the next 10 years.

Under the proposal, part of the money saved would be used for international projects to promote peace, including development aid and disarmament.

Three of the four government parties have recommended a "no" vote. Only the centre-left Social Democrats are in favour.

The government and parliament have warned that approval of the measure would damage the country's defence capability and lead to massive job cuts.

However, supporters of the proposal say Switzerland has one of the biggest and most expensive armies in Europe. They also claim that the defence cuts made by the government over the past decade are small in comparison with other countries.

The size and role of Switzerland's militia army has become a hotly contested issue since the end of the Cold War era and the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe a decade ago.

On the last occasion the issue came to a popular vote, during the height of changes in eastern Europe in 1989, a surprisingly large number of Swiss - 35 per cent - voted to abolish the army altogether.

Swiss voters are also voting on two similar proposals on whether to introduce a flexible retirement age.

Supporters of the measure - including the Greens, Social Democrats and unions - want to give people the option of retiring at 62 without losing their right to a full pension. Men in Switzerland are currently eligible for a pension at 65, while the retirement age for women is slightly lower.

Parliament and the three centre-right political parties in cabinet say a flexible retirement age would cost an additional SFr2 billion annually and add to the financial problems of the old age pension scheme.

The scheme is mainly funded by mandatory contributions from the salaries of the working population and employers, as well as government subsidies and taxes.

However, the pension scheme has come under increasing strain because the number of people paying into it has been falling while the number of elderly people has been increasing.

Switzerland was one of the last countries in western Europe to set up a state pension scheme in 1948. In the first phase, the retirement age for women was gradually lowered to 62, while keeping men's retirement age at 65.

In 1995, the electorate approved a proposal to gradually raise the age for women to 64, and the decision was confirmed in another vote three years later.

Two other issues are being voted on at federal level.

The government's proposal to overhaul a 1927 law on the status of civil servants has run into opposition from the more than 100,000 people employed by the federal administration, post office and federal railways, and the unions which represent them.

The unions called the vote, saying the new law allows for arbitrary pay settlements, threatens public services, and opens the way for other changes to civil servants' contracts and working conditions.

In the final vote, the retail chain, Denner, is proposing scrapping the medical insurance scheme in an attempt to lower the ever-rising cost of premiums.

The proposal foresees a person only having to insure for the cost of hospital visits, but the door is left open for individuals to take out private policies for other forms of treatment.

Whereas the government agrees with the overall idea, it believes any such move would place more pressure on cantons and communes - and ultimately on taxpayers such as the elderly or lower earners who might then not be able to afford non-hospital treatment.

swissinfo


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