‘Swiss law first’ initiative given short shrift at polls

Opponents of the initiative have criticised the 'Swiss law first' proposal as an attack on human rights. Keystone

Voters have rejected a right-wing proposal to put the Swiss constitution above international law. The ballot came after months of public debate on the divisive issue.

This content was published on November 25, 2018 - 19:07

The initiative was defeated with 66.2% of the vote, dealing a blow to the People's Party which had launched the proposal. It also failed to win a majority in any of the country’s 26 cantons.

The People's Party, which was pitted against all other major parties, the government, the business community and civil society, admitted defeat on Sunday. It argued that opponents had created uncertainty among citizens in the run-up to the vote through a campaign funded with "unlimited financial means".

For its part, a broad alliance of civil society groups said common sense had prevailed to defend basic human rights.

The business community also welcomed the result saying voters wanted "a country open to the outside world".

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said Sunday’s result confirmed previous decisions by voters to uphold a system of checks and balances between parliament, the government, the courts and the people.

“Voters do not want a rigid system which could create problems with international treaties. Parliament and the government can continue the current policy of finding solutions on a case-by-case basis,” she told a news conference.

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An online exit poll by the leading GfS Bern research institute found that an overwhelming majority of respondents took an informed decision. The researchers say the People’s Party failed to win support outside its own ranks, notably among supporters of centrist and centre-right parties.

The initiative was rejected notably because a majority of voters wanted pragmatic solution, according to the experts. The survey was conducted among just over 9,281 respondents across Switzerland between November 23- 25. 

+ Read how Swiss voters living abroad votedExternal link

EU ties and European court

The People’s Party said its initiative was aimed at preserving Swiss sovereignty and direct democracy, giving citizens the final say on any international treaty.

Under the so-called “Swiss law first” proposal, the powers of the government, parliament as well as the courts would have been restricted. International accords which are not in line with the Swiss constitution would have been cancelled or be subject to new negotiations.

The initiative was launched in response to several rulings by the European Court of Human Rights over the past decade on the expulsion of convicted foreign criminals by Switzerland, as well as parliament’s refusal, backed by the Supreme Court, to implement an initiative approved by voters in 2010, about the automatic deportation of criminals.

Hans-Ueli Vogt, People’s Party parliamentarian and professor of law, said Switzerland’s relations with the European Union were the main target of the initiative.

Legal uncertainty, human rights

Opponents, notably the government and the business community, warned that approval of the initiative would create legal uncertainty, thereby undermining Switzerland’s position as a reliable partner. A broad alliance from civil society also argued it is an attack on Switzerland’s reputation as a champion of human rights.

The People’s Party has made the initiative a political priority, declaring it a showdown over fundamental values.

The party presented a project for the initiative in August 2014, seven months before beginning to collect the necessary 100,000 signatures in the spring of the following year. The initiative immediately prompted harsh opposition, notably from human rights organisations. 

Parliament provided the stage for emotional discussions on the issue earlier this year, setting the tone for the vote campaign as early as September. The debate saw broad coverage by the media and heated public panel discussions over the past two months.

Long campaigns

The unexpectedly moderate posters from the People’s Party took opponents by surprise, but experts believe it was an effort to attract support from outside the party ranks, particularly among centrist voters.

It’s estimated that both sides will have spent up to CHF8 million ($8 million) in total on campaign posters, leaflets, print advertisements and social media efforts – a potential record.

However, experts doubted whether the new People’s Party strategy could be successful, since opinion polls in the run-up to the November 25 vote found no majority for the initiative.

Results vote November 25, 2018

‘Swiss law first’ initiative:      33.8% yes      66.2% no

Cow horn initiative:               45.3% yes      54.7% no

Social welfare detectives:     64.7% yes      35.3% no

Turnout: 47.7%

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