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New year, new referenda: Swiss voters once again marched up to the ballot box on February 8, kicking off the first of four referenda in 2004. Despite the recent changes in the country's political landscape, the citizenry reaffirmed that they have the last word.

Indeed, the Swiss people decided to go against the will of the Parliament and Federal Council, us well us the political parties to some extent, on all three proposals that were presented by the government.

The issues on the table this time round were:

* The popular initiative dubbed "life-long custody for untreatable, extremely dangerous violent criminals and sex offenders"

* The government's counterproposal to the so-called 'Avanti initiative' and call for safer and more efficient autobahns;

* Change in the federal law governing rents.

But voters gave thumbs up only to the popular initiative.

The Outcomes

Addressing ad emotional issue, the people accepted the initiative calling for the incarceration for life of repeat offenders convicted of violent and sex crimes, deemed extremely dangerous to society and regarded as untreatable.

This proposal was self-explanatory. The government had recommended rejection of the initiative, but--with the exception of the people of cantons Basel-City and Vaud (Waadt)--all the others accepted the proposal. The 'Yes' vote was given by 56.2 per cent of the voters.

According to the new constitutional provision, such notorious criminals would only be released from custody, if new scientific knowledge proved that they could be treated and rehabilitated.

The advocates of the initiative declared a victory for the potential victims of heinous crimes, over the government's existing experimentation with ways of treating such "menaces to society."

Events in recent years have sparked more controversy with regard to the practice of granting parole and prison furloughs to career criminals. In a country that enjoys relatively low crime rates (according to data compiled by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office in 1999, there were 58 convicted murderers serving sentences in Swiss prisons), the issue had apparently touched a nerve among the populace.

The Federal Council's counterproposal to the so-called 'Avanti initiative' was resoundingly rejected by the people by a margin of 62.8 per cent. The majority in all the cantons opposed the proposal on additional funds for improving the private and public transportation systems in the agglomerations.

Mountainous regions registered the strongest dissent in this regard. The government's program had called for investing roughly CHF 30 billion over the next 20 years in the nation's transportation infrastructure.

The group that comprises the tenants in Switzerland--accounting for the vast majority of households in the country--came out on top with respect to the government's push to change existing federal laws regulating certain aspects of property rents. Some 64 per cent of the voters surprisingly said an emphatic "No" to the proposal. Again, the majority in all cantons rejected this more. The revision would have linked rent prices primarily to inflation rules, rather than mortgage interest rates.

The Reactions

The real story behind the referenda results seem to be the difference of opinion between Swiss voters and the government over the direction in which country's political machine--with regard to the issues at hand--need to be steered in.

For once, the commentary circulating in the media painted a uniform picture: The lesson to be learned by the Federal Council, Parliament and political parties in this school of Swiss politics is that the will of the people will ultimately prevail.

The St. Gallen newspaper 'Tagblatt' summed it up, stating that the political class had not seen such a clear defeat for some time, as it did on that February weekend. According to the 'Neue Zurcher Zeitung', it was no coincidence that the citizenry decided noticeably against the government's recommendations on all three proposals at the ballot box. And some pundits even went so far as to call the outcome a slap in the face of the government, which is obviously not attuned to the views of the populace.

The Political Road Ahead

The federal government has set the remaining dates for other referenda in 20004 for May 16, September 26 and November 28. Pending popular initiatives that are currently in the pipeline--i.e., under review by the Swiss Parliament or Federal Council--include: a proposal for agriculturally produced foods without genetic technology; the "Yes to Animal Protection" initiative; a proposal advocating fair child supplementary benefits; an initiative calling for the allocation of Swiss National Bank profits to the country's social security system (or AHV); as well us a proposal demanding that the government provide adequate postal services for everyone.

This time round, the government carne away empty handed across the board, while the votes embraced another of the people's initiative. The results also underscore the fact that democracy runs deep in Switzerland, so deep that any citizen is empowered to initiate an amendment to its constitution, propose new laws or challenge administrative procedures simply by garnering 100,000 signatures from like-minded voters. Such popular initiatives can only be passed into law by means of a government referendum, requiring thumbs up by the majority of the populace us well us the cantons. And these initiatives can only be born and raised by the people--what the Swiss call the epitome of direct democracy. In fact, no other nation in the world bestows upon its people the right to co-determine its political destiny like Switzerland.

Where the Government Lost Out ...

In 2000, the Avanti initiative was launched. This called for a second road tunnel through the Gotthard--Switzerland's main north-south axis through the Alps.

However, the initiative was withdrawn after the government carne up with its own plans to set aside CHF350 million of public money annually to tackle traffic congestion. This was done keeping in mind the estimate of a 15-30 per cent increase in traffic by 2020, This. many were in favour of. But then the government, which is also against the building of a second Gotthard road found was forced by parliament to include it in the proposals.

Opponents had argued that a second road tunnel through the Gotthard was unnecessary, costly and contravened Switzerland's policy of protecting the Alps. (In 1994, the Swiss voted to bah the construction of major new roads in the Alps and to transfer transalpine freight from road to rail.)

And hence, even before the voting, opposition seemed to be growing to government plans to upgrade Switzerland's main roads. The main sticking point was the plan for a second road tunnel through the Gotthard.
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Title Annotation:Politics
Author:Anderson, Robert (American businessman and engineer)
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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