For members


Is Switzerland delaying imposing new measures due to Covid referendum?

While Covid infections are skyrocketing across much of Europe, Switzerland has indicated there will be no additional measures. Some experts say the government is trying to avoid a backlash in the November 28th referendum.

A person votes in a referendum in Switzerland
Switzerland will go to the polls to vote on Covid measures including the Covid certificate on November 28th. Photo:FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

As German-speaking Europe locks down, Switzerland has promised no additional measures. 

Experts and Swiss media outlets have suggested this may be to do with the upcoming referendum in which citizens will vote on the country’s Covid laws – with the government not wanting to risk a protest vote. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What is happening in Switzerland and the rest of Europe? 

On Friday, Austria announced it would re-enter a nationwide lockdown – including stay-at-home orders and the closure of bars and restaurants – while vaccination against Covid will become mandatory from February 2022. 

Key points: How will Austria’s new national lockdown work?

Several German states have recently put in place a range of tighter measures, including restricting bars and restaurants to the vaccinated and recovered, while Christmas markets have been cancelled. 

Further measures have been flagged, including requiring a Covid certificate in the workplace and on long-distance trains. 

READ MORE: Germany passes law reform for sweeping Covid measures

In contrast, Switzerland announced on Thursday that no further measures were currently under consideration, despite Covid cases hitting a record mark in 2021. 

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said he was concerned about rising infection rates but felt confident in the country’s vaccination campaign. 

“We have very few deaths at the moment. We also notice that the vaccination protects very well. Maybe that would be the right moment again for those people who have not yet dared to take the step,” he said. 

“Again: the vaccination offers 90 percent protection against severe courses of the disease and you have to make use of it.”

What does this have to do with the referendum on November 28th?

Switzerland’s refusal to adopt even the most basic of tighter measures – such as requiring more accurate PCR tests for the Covid certificate or mandating the certificate be required in gondolas and ski lifts – has led some experts to ask if the government has the 28th of November in mind. 

As part of its famous direct democracy system, Switzerland will vote on November 28th on its Covid-19 laws, including the Covid certificate. 

READ MORE: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid referendum on November 28th?

Those pushing the referendum claim the certificate requirement that is currently in place until at least January 24th, 2022, creates discrimination and division within society, implicitly forcing vaccination and “state access to our body”.

This is the second such vote on the topic, with a challenge to previous Covid measures being rejected at a June 7th referendum by 60 percent of the population. 

While the vote looks set to pass by a two-thirds majority – a higher majority than the previous vote – Swiss media has suggested the government may be delaying decisions on tighter measures until after the vote.  

Lukas Golder, political scientist and co-director of the GfS Bern institute, told Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes that the government may not want to jeopardise the referendum result. 

“It is quite possible that the Federal Council is currently exercising restraint because it wants to secure maximum support for the Covid-19 law,” Golder said. 

READ MORE: What are the Covid rules for Switzerland’s Christmas markets?

“If the Federal Council were to promise a partial lockdown or 2G, for example, some people might judge the certificate requirement differently.

Golder indicated that the government not only wanted to win a majority in the referendum, but also that a stronger result would give their actions a greater degree of legitimacy.  

“The higher the ‘yes’ (vote), the stronger signal the population is giving the federal government in favour of the current course and further steps in the pandemic.”

“However, the Federal Council could also lose yes votes due to its behaviour.”

Martin Bäumle, a national councillor with the Green Liberal Party, said the government was definitely stalling. 

“I am almost certain that the vote on the Covid Act is the main reason for the Federal Council’s wait-and-see tactic,” Bäumle told 20 Minutes. 

“He’s afraid that measures could change the mood.

“The government is acting like a car approaching a wall at high speed and hoping that someone will remove the wall before impact.”

He said the government was being irresponsible and would cause damage in the long term. 

“With every week that we wait, more stringent measures threaten.”

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

“I hope not”: Berset on whether the government is purposefully stalling

When asked if measures were being delayed due to the vote, Berset said on Wednesday “I hope not”. 

Daniel Kübler, a political scientist from the University of Zurich, says the figures show the situation in Switzerland is comparatively calmer and he doubted that the government had a secret plan to impose measures after the vote. 

“In my experience the Swiss government hasn’t been incredibly tactful so far in the pandemic.”

Is the government really stalling? 

Besides sharing a language, German-speaking Europe is connected by its similar rates of vaccination. 

As at November 19th, 70 percent of Germans have had at least one dose, while 68 percent of Austrians have had at least one jab. 

The figure in Switzerland is 67 percent. 

However, other metrics are not identical, such as Covid case rates and hospital capacity. 

While confirmed Covid cases are much higher in Austria than in Switzerland, this is in part due to testing. 

For instance, on November 11th Austria tested more than 725,000 people, whereas Switzerland tested just 40,129. 

One major reason for Switzerland not following Germany and Austria’s lead is hospital and ICU capacity. 

While hospitals are overloaded in some parts of Austria – and Germany has already begun transferring ICU patients from hard-hit areas – the ICU situation in Switzerland is relatively stable. 

There are twice as many people in ICUs in Germany than in Switzerland on a per capita basis, while the figure is 2.5 times higher in Austria. 

Four times as many people are dying from Covid in Austria than in Switzerland, with the figure in Switzerland half that of Germany. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


How ordinary citizens can try to change the law in Switzerland

A unique feature of the Swiss system of direct democracy is the ability of any citizen, or a group of citizens, to impact the political process by creating new laws or changing the existing ones. Here's how.

How ordinary citizens can try to change the law in Switzerland

Switzerland’s political system is unlike any other country’s: here the people — rather than lawmakers — have the power to shape local and national policies.

This is done through referendums or popular initiatives, the two backbones of Switzerland’s centuries-old tradition of direct democracy.

On average, the Swiss vote four times a year on several issues at a time — more often than citizens of any other nation.

What is the difference between a referendum and an initiative?

Basically, referendums are about approving new laws or changing the existing ones.

The first is called a mandatory referendum, when all legislation and constitutional amendments approved by the parliament must then be accepted (or rejected) by the voters. 

With an optional referendum, any group or individual can contest an existing law, by gathering 50,000 signatures within 100 days. The petition must include names and addresses of Swiss citizens only.

Popular, citizen-driven initiatives, on the other hand, are intended to create new laws.

An initiative must be launched by at least seven citizens and be backed by 100,000 signatures collected within 18 months in order to push it to a national referendum.

For cantonal or communal initiatives, fewer signatures are required, based on the population of a given canton or municipality.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

How do you go about creating a new law?

First of all, you must be Swiss. It doesn’t matter whether you were born Swiss, were naturalised, or have a dual nationality — what counts is that you have the right to vote in Switzerland. 

A cyclist in Zurich.

A cyclist in Zurich. Ordinary citizens in Switzerland can influence how laws are made. Photo by Emilie Farris on Unsplash

Secondly, only adults over the age of 18 can sign a petition and vote.

This is the step-by-step process towards getting an initiative on the ballot:

The first step s to announce it to the Federal Chancellery — the government’s administrative arm — for a national referendum, and to the cantonal authority for regional votes.
The text of the federal initiative must be written in one of the national languages, and the Chancellery will then translate it into the other official languages. 
The cantonal / communal initiatives must be presented in the official language of the region.
Based on the merits of a particular issue, the Chancellery will either validate the initiative or reject it. In the former case, the organisers can begin to gather signatures, which should be collected within the defined period of time (as mentioned above). 

Once the required number of signatures is gathered, the petition is submitted to the Chancellery for the verification and validation of signatures. 

If all is ok, the date of the referendum is scheduled, and the campaign begins.

Do all initiatives eventually end up at the ballot box?
The ones deemed to be unimportant or irrelevant will be scrapped. However, sometimes even those than can be considered trivial pass the muster.
For instance, one of the wackiest citizen-driven initiatives was a 2010 push by animal rights activists that would require the government to appoint (and pay for) lawyers to represent animals in court.
Although the issue made it to the ballot box, the voters gave paws down to this proposal on the grounds that Switzerland already has strict laws protecting pets and farm animals.

Another group attempted to create a law on the “unconditional basic income,” that would force the government to give each adult in Switzerland 2,500 francs per month — just for existing.

That initiative too was turned down by the voters, as that this policy would strain the state budget.

Other citizen initiatives have been more successful in creating new laws, however.
One of them was a highly controversial push by right-wing groups to ban the construction of minarets on mosques in Switzerland, which were seen as representing Islam as a threat to Swiss society.
Despite the government’s plea to reject this initiative, about 57 percent of voters approved the measure.

It is now a law.