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Voters focus on the environment and drug use: Swiss voters will cast ballots this November on issues ranging from the right of environmental organisations to appeal controversial construction projects, to the decriminalisation of cannabis, Swiss News examines the issues and the potentially far-reaching consequences of voters' decisions.


Switzerland's four million-plus registered voters will be asked to make five decisions on November 30, involving environmental groups' rights to appeal building plans, drug-use policies, changes to the statutory retirement age and laws governing sex offenders.

In total, there are four popular initiatives to be voted on and one change to the existing law on narcotics to be approved. Under Swiss law, popular initiatives to change Federal acts require at least 100,000 signatures while 50,000 signatures must be collected to force a vote on whether to approve a change in the law.

The Swiss Federal Council and the upper and lower houses of parliament recommend voters reject all four popular initiatives, but approve the change in the Federal law on narcotics.


Preserving the green

The issue attracting the most attention ahead of the vote is one opponents say affects the nation's future as a renowned tourist destination and place of natural beauty: namely, the scrapping of Swiss environmental organisations' rights to appeal construction projects.

Those opposing the initiative use images of Swiss environmental 'icons', which they argue could not have been saved were it not for a clause in the current law that allows Swiss organisations to appeal against construction plans that could have a negative impact on the environment.

"These areas, like the Aletsch and Lake Geneva, have been made UNESCO World Heritage sites due to their environmental importance and that would have not been possible without the ability of environmental associations to appeal," said Beat Jans, who is responsible for politics and international affairs at Swiss environmental organisation ProNatura in Basel.

ProNatura is part of a broad coalition of pro-environmental organisations that currently have the right to lodge complaints against planned construction projects, and oppose the popular initiative.

The initiative is led by the Zurich arm of the pro-business Free Democratic Party of Switzerland (FDP) that wants to get rid of the so-called Verbandsbeschwerderecht, or Associations' Right to Appeal. The FDP committee in charge of the initiative says the current law unnecessarily blocks construction projects that could bring economic growth to Switzerland.

Scrapping the right to appeal would only apply in cases when a construction project had been approved by voters in a referendum or by local parliaments. Private individuals, including local residents, could still appeal a project.

The initiative stems in part from the debacle over Zurich's football stadiums. In 2005, a SFr 370-million renovation concept for the city's Hardturm stadium, which would have included a shopping centre, was approved by Zurich voters but then blocked by the environmental lobbies and local residents. This resulted in city officials scrambling to get the Letzigrund stadium renovated in time for the Euro 2008 football championship.

"The abuse of the Verbandsbeschwerderecht has in recent years led to the blocking of billions of Swiss francs in construction investment and has even overturned democratically reached decisions," said the initiative's organising committee in a statement. "Jobs are being destroyed or not even being created as a result."

The law dates from the 1960s and was created in an effort to give some power to the fledgling pro-environmental, conservation and green-issues organisations that were emerging. It gave them the right to appeal and--argue the environmentalists--has ensured that some of Switzerland's natural landscapes remained undisturbed and protected for the benefit of tourists and future generations.

"The Verbandsbeschwerderecht has given nature a strong voice and this initiative would remove that," said Jans. "Switzerland has two amazing institutions: on the one hand, the movement for environmental protection and protection of our heritage, and on the other hand this right for associations of this kind to lodge appeals. It would be a shame to lose one of them."

"Switzerland's landscape is very important in terms of this country's capital," he added. "We cannot simply hand it over to those who want to pursue construction projects."

The Swiss government itself supports environmental organisations' right to appeal.

"Accepting this initiative would have profound consequences," Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberger told reporters recently. "The environmental organisations would no longer be able to fulfil the role that the state has given them which is to represent the interests of nature via lawyers."

Changing the role of drugs in Swiss society Another key initiative in the upcoming referendum is the motion to change the way that the use of cannabis is controlled in Switzerland. Already, the country has a far more liberal approach to social use of the drug than many other European nations.

The initiative calls for the decriminalisation of cannabis consumption, an investigation into whether the federal government could--and should--be involved in the supply of the drug, stronger laws to prevent youngsters from becoming exposed to the drug and a ban on advertising cannabis.

"Saying yes to this initiative is not saying yes to drugs but saying yes to the best possible balance between taking personal responsibility and state control," said the organising committee. "Thanks to clear rules and improved controls we can take control of the cannabis issue."

The Swiss government and parliament recommend that voters reject the proposals, and approve instead a change to the country's narcotics laws that would create the legal framework to allow authorities to continue with current, but unofficial practice of using drugs to treat drug addictions.

Introduced in 1951, the old narcotics law no longer reflects the realities of drug consumption in Switzerland, officials say. After a wave of open drug consumption in Swiss cities, typified by the hordes of heroin addicts who used to flock to Zurich's notorious 'needle park', the country developed a realistic and progressive policy, which included the use of heroin-assisted therapy to treat addicts.

The Swiss government says that these policies should now be anchored in national law, a step that would open the door to the use of other drugs--including cannabis--on a medicinal basis. This would allow patients with diseases such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis to use cannabis to soothe their pain.

The government says its recommendations will also provide a more effective means of regulating drug consumption in Switzerland, as well as help those who are addicted to narcotics.

The country's current approach has four pillars: prevention, therapy, minimising the impact of drug consumption on health, and repression of drug-related crime and the consequences of drug-addiction.

"The revisions of the Swiss narcotics law is a small but important step to a coherent policy on addictions," said Ignazio Cassis, an FDP parliamentarian and supporter of the change in law. "At last, it would finally anchor the four-pillar principle in law."

Prosecuting predators

Among the other issues to be decided, the Swiss People's Party's women's wing is supporting a popular initiative that would remove the statute of limitations for cases of child pornography or sexual abuse of children.

The government argues that the terminology used in the Swiss People's Party initiative is problematic from a legal perspective, and has drafted an indirect counter proposal that suggests the 15-year statute of limitations take effect only after the victim comes of age, which is 18 years old in Switzerland. The government says that this would bring Swiss practice into line with other European Union countries.

It's quitting time

Swiss unions and left-leaning parties are supporting a popular initiative that would give workers the flexibility to decide when they will retire, and constitutes the biggest project Swiss employment unions have undertaken in years.

If adopted, the initiative would give workers earning less than around SFr 120,000 a year the option to retire early, at age 62, on a full state pension. The initiative would also anchor the standard retirement age of 65 in the constitution, and thus scupper any plans from centre-right parties to increase the retirement age to 68 or over. Currently, women retire at 64 and men at 65. Women can choose to retire at 62 with reduced benefits while men can retire at 63 on the same basis.

Since those who retire early can only do so by foregoing some of their pension benefits, left-wing parties argue that, at present, only the rich can afford to give up work ahead of their official retirement age. The government said that the measures would cost an additional SFr 1.5 billion per year, equivalent to SFr 6.50 a month for the average social security contributor. Officials in Bern criticised the suggestions, saying that they run counter to the evidence of demographic change.

"This initiative does not represent an increase in flexibility with regard to the age of retirement," said Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin. "It is a reduction in the retirement age to 62. In no other country in Europe are they heading in this direction. Everyone, no matter what their political sentiments, is heading in the other direction."
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Title Annotation:POLITICS
Author:Armitage, Tom
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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