The political system of Switzerland does not normally lend itself to high drama. There is no president to elect, and parties do not experience sudden extreme swings in popularity. The politicians are not embroiled in scandal after scandal, indeed a certain dusty boringness is almost expected of them.

But on Sunday the 24th of November, 2002, Swiss politics became rather exciting, controversial and even frightening.

The System
In order to understand this properly, you first need to know a few things about the peculiarities of the Swiss governmental system, which is a so-called direct democracy. This means that changes of law can be voted upon by the people if they want to. (This is called the Referendum.) Normally, new legislation is proposed by the parliament, but initiatives are also possible. All this means that at least in theory, a majority of voters can implement a change of law without the consent of the government. While this might sound wonderfully democratic, it is also prone to abuse - any kind of law, no matter how idiotic, can be implemented as long as more people vote for it than against.

The Problem
Now, Switzerland has a problem, or so some people say. The country let in so many immigrants over the years that today, one fifth of the total Swiss population are not citizens but foreigners. The conservative right perceives this to be far too much, they are afraid of what they call "Überfremdung" - overalienation. They fear that the national identity of Switzerland is being dissolved by the immigrants and that they are taking away the Swiss people's jobs. They fear that many of the immigrants, especially those seeking asylum, are criminals. The conservative right fears that if immigration goes on like that, the original population will eventually constitute a minority in their own country. Though whether this is all really the case is questionable, it makes for a great political platform.

The Solution
To deal with this perceived problem, the SVP (Swiss People's Party), a powerful populist-right party, has long been trying to change the policies on granting asylum to refugees. (Who actually only account for some 67'000 people out of some seven million total inhabitants of Switzerland.) Their newest shot at reaching that goal was the "Volksinitiative gegen Asylrechtsmissbrauch" (approx. "Initiative against the Abuse of Asylum"). It was originally conceived of during the war in Bosnia, as tens of thousands of refugees were fleeing to Switzerland and other countries. The name of the Initiative implies that its aim is to stop people from abusing the asylum offered by Switzerland. The abuse of asylum has long been an important topic of discussion, as many people fear that a great number of immigrants are not fleeing from prosecution or war but are simply looking for a rich country to "feed on". Those so-called economic refugees constitute a great drain on the finances of the state they have fled to. Not taking them in will not expose them to mortal danger, but simply keep them poor, unlike the ones fleeing from war or other horrors. While the ethics of keeping out economic refugees are questionable as well, it's nothing compared to the definite evil of not taking in people fleeing from a war zone.

The Initiative contained a number of points:

  • The support for refugees whose request for asylum has been turned down was to be decreased to the point of only offering basic housing and emergency-only medical care. They were also to be forbidden to work. (So they wouldn't steal away the Swiss people's jobs.)
  • Furthermore it demanded legal sanctions against airlines who let in immigrants without permission.
  • Most important of all, in order to keep out refugees that do not actually need to be rescued, the Initiative suggested that people seeking asylum who come to Switzerland via a safe country (no civil wars going on and stuff) would be automatically turned away and sent back to said safe country.
Sounds okay, doesn't it?

The Problem with the Solution
Well, look at your world map and think again. Switzerland is surrounded by the European Union, which certainly fulfills the requirement of "safe". It is also landlocked, so there can't be any refugees coming in by boat. In fact, once you think about it, the only way a refugee could stand any chance of even being considered for asylum under the new law would be by boarding a plane in, say, Bosnia and flying straight to Zurich airport. Not many refugees come in by plane and of those who do, a sizeable proportion is frozen dead anyway. (Because they hid in the cargo bay or in the wheel compartments of the plane, which are unheated and unpressurised.) Anyway, the second point of the initiative sought to largely close up that way in as well.

The refugees automatically turned back by the new law would not necessarily be re-accepted by the "safe" states they came from (those states not being too keen on having them back), leaving them in some kind of limbo. They would actually still be situated in Switzerland, defeating the purpose of the whole thing. Even worse is that the Initiative made no provision for differentiating between the actually persecuted and the economic refugees. The upshot of this all: Switzerland would stop offering asylum at all and instead dump all refugees on the neighbouring countries - a humanitarian disaster. (And totally unfair to the European Union as well.)

The Vote
On Sunday the 24th of November, 2002, the Swiss people voted on the proposed legislation. Opposition to the Initiative appeared astoundingly late and rather half-hearted, even though all other parties besides the SVP actually disapproved of it. Polls done a few weeks before had suggested that the Initiative would be accepted. Therefore I was not feeling very happy or hopeful when I cast my vote against the Initiative on that day, and I silently berated myself for not reminding my friends and acquaintances to cast their vote.

When the results came out on Sunday evening, I was simultaneously relieved and frightened: the Initiative had failed. But only just barely, by a margin of 3422 votes, the closest shave of any initiative ever.

Three thousand four hundred and twenty-two votes out of some two point four million do not constitute the "will of the people". They are a statistical fluctuation, the result of a few undecided people uncertainly writing "NO" instead of "YES" on the ballot. Switzerland is thus neatly divided into two camps of exactly the same size, with me in one of them, the one standing (or so it seems to me) for basic human compassion. It leaves me in the position of having more than a million people to personally despise and fear for what they were trying to achieve.

The Aftermath
It turns out that several cities, including Bern, did not actually count the ballots but rather weighed them. Even though this method is generally known to be more exact than counting the ballots by hand, the cities now must recount the votes manually. They have to do this because they did not have permission to weigh the ballots, giving the losers of the vote a possible angle of attack on the validity of the vote's outcome. The final results won't be known for weeks yet. The entire thing is beginning to look like a miniature version of the US presidential election of 2000, complete with political controversy and recounts. Let's hope for a better outcome.

Sources: The newspaper "Der Bund" (, the official voting information booklet, discussing the matter with people.