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Swiss say "yes" to more voting rights

Just 28 per cent of the electorate cast their votes on Sunday Keystone Archive

Swiss voters have accepted proposals to change the way direct democracy is administered.

This content was published on February 9, 2003 - 17:25

A clear majority of voters - 70.3 per cent - said "yes" to the introduction of a General People's Initiative, although turnout was low at just 28 per cent.

The proposals were backed by the government and parliament and they convincingly won the so-called "double majority" necessary to be adopted - a majority among the cantons and the popular vote.

Low turnout

The Swiss justice minister, Ruth Metzler, said she was surprised at the level of backing for the proposals, but not at the low turnout.

"Experience shows us that the turnout is always low when it comes to institutional questions which do not have any measurable effect on everyday life," she said.

"This might be a small reform but it is a reform and shows that Switzerland is able to make reforms [to its system of direct democracy]."

Andreas Gross, a parliamentarian for the Social Democratic Party, and one of the most outspoken campaigners against the proposals, said the low-key build-up to the vote had taken its toll.

"I don't think there was a lack of debate because of lack of interest," he said.

"I think the party machinery was exhausted after the November vote on asylum and ahead of the nine votes due in May."

Surprise result

Rüdi Lustenberger, a parliamentarian for the Christian Democratic Party and a member of the committee that had been urging a "yes" vote, said the result had come as a surprise particularly in light of the strength of the opposition prior to the vote.

Although the cabinet had recommended a vote in favour of the reform, two of the four parties in government - the rightwing Swiss People's Party and the centre-left Social Democratic Party - had campaigned against the proposals.

Lustenberger said that even a majority of the Swiss press had been against the introduction of a new initiative.

New initiative

The number of signatures needed to launch a general people's initiative will be 100,000 - the same level as for the existing people's initiative.

If a vote is taken and passed using the new initiative, it will be up to parliament to decide whether the recommendations should be adopted under the law or under the constitution.

The existing people's initiative (see related story) only allows for a change to the constitution.

The distinction is a subtle one, but Luzius Mader of the Swiss justice ministry told swissinfo that it would make citizen's proposals more likely to become reality.

A change to the law only requires a majority of the popular vote, whereas a change to the constitution also needs the support of a majority of Switzerland's 26 cantons.

A second change included in Sunday's People's Rights vote will give the Swiss a greater say in foreign policy issues.

Any state treaty with another country or international body could be forced to a nationwide vote if the agreement requires a change in the law.

Metzler said this would come into effect immediately and the government would pass the new general initiative as soon as possible.

Hospital financing

In a second nationwide vote on Sunday the Swiss also accepted the government's proposals for cantons to pay the contributions for hospital stays in instalments.

A 1996 law required cantons to make payments towards the costs of a hospital stay for patients with additional insurance cover, but many refused to do so.

A compromise was reached whereby the cantons would contribute SFr500 annually starting in 2002.

Two health insurance companies focred a nationwide vote by demanding the full contribution as originally agreed.

But Swiss voters gave a clear endorsement to the government's proposals with 77.4 per cent voting in favour.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Only 28 per cent of the electorate cast their ballots in Sunday's votes.
A large majority of voters - 70.3 per cent - said "yes" to the introduction of a General People's Initiative.
The reform won a majority in all 26 of Switzerland's cantons.
Anyone wanting to launch a General People's Initiative will need to collect at least 100,000 valid signatures.

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