Groups campaigning for the controversial merger of cantons Vaud and Geneva have won a significant victory. The people of the two French-speaking cantons are to vote on the initiative on the same day in 2002.
The governments of the two cantons, which are both opposed to the proposed fusion, have acknowledged that it make no sense to hold the two votes on different days. They said they did not want to be accused of putting unnecessary obstacles in the path of the initiatives.
The votes are likely to be held in either June or September 2002. With the exception of federal votes, it will be the first time the people of the two cantons will have voted on the same subject.
Supporters of the initiatives are overjoyed, saying they will be able to run a single campaign in both cantons: "This is a first victory," said Claude Chérix, secretary general of the Vaud-Geneva Union movement.
"Without a simultaneous vote, the debate would have been pointless. Now we can have a genuinely broad debate between the two cantons in the run-up to what will be a historic date," he told swissinfo.
In a joint statement, the two cantonal governments reiterated that the creation of what is being dubbed the "Lake Geneva Supercanton" would ignore the historical realities as well as the different political cultures of the two cantons.
They said that while there was already close collaboration between Vaud and Geneva in a number of areas, their economic and cultural poles of attraction were different. The statement said the region being proposed "does not convey the same notion for the citizens of Geneva and Vaud".
"A merger will only serve to complicate issues which are already very complex," the head of Geneva's cantonal government, Carlo Lamprecht, told with swissinfo.
He described the merger as a notion imported directly from the business world, and one that was not ideally suited to political entities with distinct identities.
"We can have fruitful collaboration without having to merge," Lamprecht said.
The Vaud-Geneva Union group, which draws support from across the political spectrum, points to the fact that thousands of people travel between the two cantons to work every day.
Regionalism, they say, is an everyday reality. One of their slogans is that people should not have to adapt to institutions, rather that institutions should serve the people.
"If you look at people's everyday lives, they have already created this region. To simplify things at an administrative level, it would be better if people in the two cantons lived in a common institutional framework," Chérix said.
He added that one advantage would be big savings from having a single tax administration.
Supporters of the merger see their initiative as a way of developing a debate on the reorganisation of Switzerland's administrative boundaries. They would like to see the present 26 cantons and half-cantons replaced with five, six or seven bigger, more dynamic regions, or "federated states".
"We have to redefine Swiss federalism, and this is a first step, because the situation is right here," said Chérix.
He said the initiative would allow a whole range of institutional matters to be placed on the table for discussion. These would not only include relations between cantons, but also the relationship between a canton and the communities within it.
"I believe this question of cantonal identity is greatly overestimated. But having a bigger administrative area would not prevent someone from feeling Vaudois, just as he can now identify with the town where he lives," he told swissinfo.
The cantonal governments also believe there should be a debate on increased regionalism in Switzerland, but that it should be conducted at federal level.
"Why Vaud and Geneva? Why not Vaud, Geneva and Valais? Why not the whole of French-speaking Switzerland? Rather than bringing cantons together, it creates divisions," says Carlo Lamprecht.
The head of Vaud's institutional affairs department, Claude Ruey, goes further: "The ultimate danger is that Switzerland will be reorganised along linguistic lines, and that would be a very real threat for the cohesion of Switzerland."
The campaign for the merger succeeded in collecting more than the necessary 10,000 signatures in canton Vaud in April 1999, and in Geneva in June 2000.
The initiatives have a number of heavyweight backers, including Philippe Nordmann, head of the Maus retail group, Jean-Pierre Jobin, director general of Geneva airport, Claude Nobs, founder of the Montreux Jazz festival, and a host of regional and national politicians.
by Roy Probert