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EXPLAINED: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid-19 referendum?

On June 13th, the Swiss will vote on several issues, including on whether to keep or repeal the controversial Covid legislation.

EXPLAINED: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid-19 referendum?
Swiss voters will head to the ballot box soon — again. Photo by Fabrica Coffrini / AFP

The Covid-19 Act was implemented in September 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which claimed many victims in Switzerland and caused a major downturn in the economy.

“The number of people becoming seriously ill rose quickly”, the government explains on its website.

 “The Federal Council took measures to protect the population and to support people and businesses suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic”.

Authorities also said they had to enact this emergency legislation, which is supposed to stay in effect until the end of 2021, because the already existing Epidemics Act “did not offer a statutory basis for all the measures required” to manage the pandemic.

READ MORE: Switzerland announces five new referendum questions

What does this law cover?

“The Act grants the Federal Council additional powers to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and above all to mitigate its negative effects on society and the economy”, the Federal Council said.

Among these “powers” is also the ability to curtail public life (for instance, by imposing various bans and restrictions), and to allow the government to invest in the production of medical treatments for coronavirus patients, as well as in the manufacture and distribution of the Covid vaccines.

The law also covers to a broad variety of measures aimed at combating the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the distribution — amounting to about 35 billion francs — of financial aid to hard-hit businesses and employees.

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Who is against this legislation, and why?

The association called “Friends of the Constitution” filed a referendum against  the Covid-19 Act, saying the legislation gives the authorities too much political power that is not necessary to manage the pandemic.

The association argues that the Act “deprives people of their rights”, and is “useless and dangerous”.

The group also claims the legislation would allow the introduction of a “compulsory system with poorly tested vaccines”, which has not been the case, as the vaccines are administered on voluntary basis.

“The success of the referendum would be a call on the authorities to exercise the utmost caution in the vaccination campaign and even impose a moratorium on it”, said the group’s spokesperson, Christoph Pfluger.

What would happen if the group’s proposal is accepted on June 13th?

Under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, where voters, and not politicians, have the power to create or challenge laws, the Federal Council would have to abide by the decision.

The law would however not expire immediately. Instead, it would expire on the 25th of September, i.e. one year on from its original passing. 

The referendum result would also not mean that the law was invalidated retrospectively. This means that if you have received a fine or have been forced to do something as a result of the law, this fine is not refundable and you are not able to challenge the law

The government would however not be allowed to pass another similar law under its emergency powers, for instance if the pandemic worsened. Instead, any legislative solution would have to be passed in the usual way. 

The main impact of the proposal being accepted is that financial support provided to people under the Act would be affected. 

As the Covid-19 Act makes it possible to continue distributing financial help to businesses and individuals, this funding could be curtailed.

“The most important of these are payments for short-time work, compensation for loss of income, assistance in cases of hardship, and support for cultural and sports organisations”, federal authorities said.

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Swiss decision to purchase US fighter jets could force second referendum

Switzerland's decision to purchase US-made fighter jets could be put to a referendum,

Swiss decision to purchase US fighter jets could force second referendum
Swiss fighter jets. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Switzerland’s government on Wednesday backed the purchase of 36 F-35A fighter jets from Lockheed Martin to replace its fleet and five Patriot air defence units from fellow US manufacturer Raytheon.

Switzerland’s current air defence equipment will reach the end of its service life in 2030 and has been undergoing a long and hotly-contested search for replacements.

“The Federal Council is confident that these two systems are the most suitable for protecting the Swiss population from air threats in the future,” the government said in a statement.

‘No Trump fighter jets’: Swiss don’t want to buy American planes

The decision will now be put to the Swiss parliament — and also risks being challenged at the ballot box, with left-wingers and an anti-militarist group looking to garner enough signatures to trigger a public vote.

The F-35A was chosen ahead of the Airbus Eurofighter; the F/A-18 Super Hornet by Boeing; and French firm Dassault’s Rafale.

For the ground-based air defence (GBAD) system, Patriot was selected ahead of SAMP/T by France’s Eurosam.

“An evaluation has revealed that these two systems offer the highest overall benefit at the lowest overall cost,” the government statement said. Switzerland is famously neutral. However, its long-standing position is one of armed neutrality and the landlocked European country has mandatory conscription for men.

“A fleet of 36 aircraft would be large enough to cover Switzerland’s airspace protection needs over the longer term in a prolonged situation of heightened tensions,” the government said.

“The air force must be able to ensure that Swiss airspace cannot be used by foreign parties in a military conflict.” 

Long path to decision 

Switzerland began to seek replacements for its ageing fleet of fighter jets more than a decade ago, but the issue has become caught up in a political battle in the wealthy Alpine nation.

The Swiss government has long argued for the need to quickly replace its 30 or so F/A-18 Hornets, which will reach the end of their lifespan in 2030, and the F-5 Tigers, which have been in service for four decades and are not equipped for night flights.

In 2014, the country looked set to purchase 22 Gripen E fighter jets from Swedish group Saab, only to see the public vote against releasing the funds needed to go forward with the multi-billion-dollar deal.

Bern launched a new selection process four years later, and a referendum last year to release six billion Swiss francs ($6.5 billion) for the purchase of the fighters of the government’s choice squeezed through with 50.1 percent of voters in favour.

During the referendum campaign, the government warned that without a swift replacement for its fleet, “Switzerland will no longer be in a position to protect and even less defend its airspace by 2030”.

Currently, the fleet does not have the capacity to support ground troops for reconnaissance missions or to intervene against ground targets.

Meanwhile Switzerland’s current GBAD system is also old and lacks the capacity to meet the widening spectrum of modern threats.

The military currently relies on a range of Rapier and Stinger short-range missiles that have been in service since 1963.