The concept of a referendum appears to be viewed increasingly by Europeans as a quick way to impose change on politicians (first Scotland, then Catalonia). The question, however, is whether the referendum really constitutes an effective form of democracy. Is decision-making not supposed to be the role of elected parliamentarians? And if a referendum affecting the entire nation is to be held, who should have the right to vote?
The Swiss go to the polls every three months to decide on one key issue or another, or more, depending on whether citizens were able to gather enough signatures to place it on the ballot. Sometimes, the outcome is to the liking of the Bern or cantonal governments, other times not.
Regardless, the referendum remains a firm and very Swiss institution. Critics often argue that the country holds too many such votes, demanding citizens to make decisions on matters they do not understand. Furthermore, they point out, participation is not usually high ensuring that political activists are the ones to sway the outcome. Last Sunday’s national referendum involved barely 47% participation, less than half the country eligible voters.
Others maintain that even if referendum initiatives are sometimes obscure, they at least put the issue on the table for public debate. And that’s the point of democracy. Clearly, this is what the Scottish vote achieved. But it also has had its reverberations, notably with regard to Wales and England, and earlier this week, Catalonia.
And maybe Flanders, the Basque country, Brittany and Corsica next? Years ago, there was even back mountain and café talk of an independent Jura incorporating some of the French side. And today, some Suisse-romandes are talking (jokingly, but still not without some thought) about the possibility of the French-speaking “Greater Geneva” region seceding from German-speaking Swiss dominance on the other side of the “Röstigraben”.
Last Sunday, the Swiss pronounced on two sore subjects: the first, the creation of a single public health insurance as proposed by the country’s leftwing parties; the second, on whether restaurants should benefit from a special VAT status. As for the citizens of Geneva, they voted on whether to grant the go-ahead for a planned tunnel, known as the ‘rade’, linking the two sides of the Rhone River at the far western end of the lake.
The Swiss voted with a significant majority (61.9%) among its 26 cantons against the idea of a public health insurance. Only seven cantons, four of them French-speaking (Jura, Neuchâtel, Geneva and Vaud), favoured the idea. The Bern government was delighted acknowledging that a majority of Swiss supported its proposal to focus more on insurance innovation and quality based on competitive diversity of choice. At the same time, the vote indicated – yet again – another cultural and political “röstigraben” divide between largely Romand western Switzerland and the German-speaking Swiss north.
In a similar vein, people voted overwhelmingly (71.5%) against reducing the 8% VAT for restaurants, which is less for supermarkets and fast-food outlets, or at least an across-the-board tax for all commerce. Restaurant and café owners maintain a higher VAT for them is “discrimination” and only persuading potential customers to eat more at home. One reason perhaps for citizens denying them a reduction is that too many Swiss restaurants offer poor quality for high prices. Maybe the vote will provide sufficient food-for-thought persuading restaurants to focus more on good value for money rather than high priced menus for not particularly great cuisine.
And finally in a Geneva only cantonal initiative, 63% of voters opted against a proposed project by the right-wing UDC party to build an over four kilometre tunnel costing at least CHF 1.2 billion linking the two sides of the Rhone River at the western end of Lake Geneva. This is the third time that Genevans have voiced their opinion on this subject, the last times in 1988 and 1996. The Geneva government breathed a sigh of relief given that city planners did not consider the ‘rade’ a viable option.
The over one century-old debate, however, is not over. Up for discussion is another tunnel (or bridge) that will be longer (14.2 km) and costlier – anywhere from CHF 2.9 to 3.7 billion – but further up the lake from Geneva’s city centre. This appears to be favoured by both the Swiss and Geneva governments, but, in the event of a later “Yes” vote, funding is unlikely to be made available until 2030.