Swiss wary of plan for more referendums

AP News
Posted: Jun 13, 2012 5:30 PM
Swiss wary of plan for more referendums

Switzerland is holding a referendum this weekend _ on whether to hold more referendums.

A nationalist group wants voters in the Alpine republic to have an automatic say every time their government signs an important international treaty.

Most major parties oppose the measure, saying it could gridlock Swiss democracy with constant ballot calls. Switzerland signs roughly 500 international treaties a year, though the proposal's backers insist most of those wouldn't meet the bar for a referendum.

Switzerland already holds about half a dozen national referendums each year _ some grouped together _ as well as local ones, with turnout rarely over 40 percent.

All it takes is 50,000 signatures to force a national vote on a new law or treaty. The bar is higher _ 100,000 signatures _ if grassroots groups want to propose completely new legislation, but such measures too are voted on frequently and sometimes succeed.

"In almost no other country in the world can the population vote on so many issues," Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at a recent news conference where she argued against the new proposal.

The group Action for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland on Wednesday accused political and business leaders of being afraid of Swiss voters.

"Some of our elites are panicking at the idea of a little more democracy in our country," Werner Gartenmann, the group's director, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Gartenmann said voters would likely be asked to go to the polls five times a year _ once more than the current average. "Of course we don't want to have a vote on every treaty," he said.

The group has said it wants referendums whenever Switzerland submits to a foreign law or court, particularly if it involves the European Union, to which Switzerland does not belong.

Bernhard Ehrenzeller, professor of public law at the University of St. Gallen, said having automatic referendums would change the dynamic of Swiss politics.

"The big majority of treaties signed by Switzerland are uncontroversial, but we would have to vote on them," he said.

Lengthy treaty negotiations with other nations, such as recent ones to stop tax evasion by foreign nationals, could be undermined by the uncertainty of a popular vote.

"It would have a tremendous impact on Swiss foreign policy," said Rene Schwok, a political scientist at the University of Geneva. "It would be a major victory for the isolationist camp and would make it almost impossible for the Cabinet to make bilateral agreements with the European Union."

Schwok said the prospect of more referendums is unlikely to appeal to Swiss voters: "I think they don't want more referendums and they don't want less."

Voting ends Sunday, and recent polls indicate the measure is likely to fail.

A survey released last week by the respected polling group gfs.bern found just 33 percent of voters in favor, with 55 percent against and 12 percent undecided.

But Gartenmann remained optimistic.

"I think our chances are intact," he said. "No country in the world has ever collapsed because of too much democracy."