Popular vote on September 23, 2018 in Switzerland concerning the direct counter-proposal to the Bike Initiative and the Federal Popular Initiatives on Fair Food and Food Sovereignty

by Prof. Markus Kern / Antonia Huwiler, University of Bern

The Swiss electorate only accepted one of the three proposals up for discussion: The direct counter-proposal to the Bike Initiative. The Fair Food Initiative and the Initiative for food sovereignty have been rejected. The voter turnout amounted to around 37%.

Direct counter-proposal to the withdrawn Popular Initiative «To encourage the use of cycle paths, footpaths and hiking trails (Bike Initiative)»[1]
In 2015 several political parties and associations launched the «Bike Initiative» which pursued the double-objective to include the interests regarding cycle paths in the Federal Constitution and to mandate the Confederation with the promotion of cycle paths in the entire country.
The Federal Council (federal government) as well as the Swiss Parliament were of the opinion that the initiative was too far-reaching and elaborated an alternative draft for a constitutional amendment instead (a so-called direct counter-proposal).[2] The counter-proposal did not foresee an obligation for Confederation to promote cycle paths (meaning to subsidize the cycle path network), but only contained the optional power of the Confederation to support and coordinate measures for the benefit of the cycle path network. Cycle paths are thus treated in the same way as footpaths and hiking trails, which had are already been mentioned in the Federal Constitution.
As a consequence of the direct counter-proposal, the original Bike Initiative was withdrawn by its initiators. Therefore only the direct counter-proposal was up for discussion.
Federal Council and Parliament recommended the electorate to vote «yes» on the grounds that cyclists contribute to a reduction of traffic volume, both in private and public transportation. Furthermore, it was stated that a safe network of cycle paths of good quality may help avoiding accidents and that it would therefore make sense for the federal government to support the cantons with the establishment of the cycle path network.[2]
These points were apt to convince both the Swiss people and the cantons, with the result that 73.6% of the voters and the majority of the voters in all of the 26 cantons endorsed the constitutional amendment.

Federal Popular Initiative «For healthy, environmentally friendly food fairly produced (Fair Food Initiative)»
The «Fair Food Initiative» would have introduced a new provision in the Federal Constitution demanding from the Confederation to ensure that the offer of foodstuff in Switzerland is of good quality, safe, environmentally sound, animal friendly and fairly produced. To attain this goal, the initiative foresaw a range of measures such as rules with regard to the authorization to market food, regulations on declaration, the promotion of regional or seasonal food or measures against food-waste. The standards proposed would have applied both to Swiss and to foreign products and would have included the possibility to implement a scaled scheme of import taxes in order to promote fairly and naturally produced foods.[3]
The Federal Council and Parliament both recommended to reject the initiative. The main argument in the debate was, that the current standard with regard to food-quality and safety was already quite high and that food prices could further increase due to even stricter regulations. The authors of the Fair Food Initiative on the other side argued that the initiative would provide market benefits for seasonal foodstuffs from the region, promote fair working conditions, reduce food waste and improve animal welfare as well as nature conservation.[4]
The initiative reached very high levels of approval in the first polls. However, the approval eroded during the campaign as it is frequently the case with Popular initiatives. On voting day the proposal was rejected by 61.3% of the voters and by the population of 22 (16 cantons with full vote and the 6 demicantons) out of the 26 cantons.

Federal Popular Initiative «For food sovereignty. Agriculture affects us all»
The Popular initiative was initiated by a farmers union in the French-speaking part of the country wanting to change the direction of Swiss agricultural policy. The initiative thus aimed at a more locally rooted, diverse, GMO-free and sustainable policy in the agricultural sector. The new constitutional provision would namely have demanded from the Confederation to take efficient measures in order to increase the number of people employed in the field of agriculture, to preserve cultivated areas, to prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms, plants and animals, to ensure fair prices or to promote the direct sale of agricultural produce to consumers. In addition to this, the Confederation would have had to levy a duty on agricultural products from abroad which are not in conformity with the Swiss social and ecological standards.[5]
Again, the Federal Council and the Parliament recommended to reject the Popular proposal based on the warning that food-prices may raise and that the tax-payers would have to carry the burden of subsidizing the farmers. Additionally, the federal government stated that some of the necessary measures would possibly violate international agreements.[6] On the other hand, the authors of the initiative were criticizing market-opening measures and the resulting competitive pressure for local agriculture. Furthermore they also referred to the steep decline of the number of persons working in the agricultural sector.[6]
The initiative was rejected even more clearly than the «Fair Food Initiative» by 68.4% of the voters and again by 22 (16 cantons with full votes and the 6 demicantons) out of the 26 cantons.

Short observations on the three votations
• Regarding the topic of the Popular initiatives at stake, it is interesting to note that two of the initiatives were thematically situated in the same field and even contained somewhat overlapping demands. Only a year ago, the Swiss people and the cantons already accepted a new constitutional provision on the food security. In November this year there will be a votation on an initiative directed against the practice of dehorning cattle and additionally there is an upcoming initiative on the reduction of pesticides and the prophylactic use of antibiotics in animal husbandry as well as an initiative proposing a complete ban of synthetically produced pesticides. This multiplication of Popular Initiatives at the thematic intersection of food production and sustainability shows that these issues are of considerable concern to the Swiss population. Such discussions take a very prominent place on the political agenda, even though it may be argued that the impact of these measures usually is only an indirect one to most voters and that this focus may therefore be interpreted as an expression of idealistic concerns or/and of the zeitgeist of a rather wealthy Western society.
• The concrete results of the votation point to a certain gap between the French- and the German-speaking cantons of the country. The French-speaking West of the country turned out to been much more favorable to both the «Fair Food» and the «Food Sovereignty» initiatives. This difference is quite surprising especially when comparing more urban cantons, for instance the Canton of Geneva and the Canton of Basel-Stadt, which often show a rather similar voting pattern. This weekend however, Geneva accepted both initiatives very clearly (63% and 60%), while Basel-Stadt rejected also very clearly (42% and 32%). The reasons for this divergence are not obvious, but it seems that the voters in the French-speaking part were more open to further government interventions and more willing to accept the resulting financial consequences than the voters in the German-speaking part.
• Finally a remark regarding the destiny of the Popular initiative more generally: This political instrument exists since 1891. Compared to the early days of its existence the Popular initiative is used very frequently in recent times. Since the year 2000 87 out of the totally 213 votations on Popular initiatives were held. This means that more than a third of the votations were held in a period of just 19 years. The success rate of Popular initiatives is even more strikingly tilted towards recent years: Out of the (only) 22 Popular initiatives which were totally accepted, 10 were accepted since the year 2000. Since May 2014 however, none of the 22 initiatives up for popular vote was accepted by the people and the cantons. In the light of statistics this political instrument thus seems to have lost some of its strength in recent years.

[1] https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/votes/20180923/bundesbeschluss-ueber-die-velowege-sowie-die-fuss–und-wanderweg.html
[2] The Federal council’s explanatory notes on the proposals of the popular vote on September 23, 2018 can be found on https://www.admin.ch/gov/de/start/dokumentation/abstimmungen/20180923.html
[3] https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/votes/20180923/volksinitiative–fuer-gesunde-sowie-umweltfreundlich-und-fair-he.html
[4] The Federal council’s explanatory notes on the proposals of the popular vote on September 23, 2018 can be found on https://www.admin.ch/gov/de/start/dokumentation/abstimmungen/20180923.html
[5] https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/votes/20180923/volksinitiative–fuer-ernaehrungssouveraenitaet-die-landwirtscha.html
[6] The Federal council’s explanatory notes on the proposals of the popular vote on September 23, 2018 can be found on https://www.admin.ch/gov/de/start/dokumentation/abstimmungen/20180923.html

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