Swiss ban the burqa

Switzerland went to the polls on Sunday – not for an election, but in its quarterly round of referendum voting. This time there were three questions, of which two were narrowly approved and one was defeated by a large margin.

I’ve written sympathetically before about Switzerland’s constitutional setup, including its extensive reliance on direct democracy. In 2005 I argued that “Countries that trust their voters to make decisions find that they get it right most of the time; extremism flourishes where that trust is absent.” So it’s always interesting to check and see how Swiss voters are dealing with the issues of the day.

The very one-sided result was on a proposal to establish a national electronic identification scheme. The legislation had been proposed by the government and approved by parliament; it was supported by most of the parties in government (including the far right), but was opposed by the centre-left and the Greens. It went down almost two to one, with 64.4% voting “no”, including a majority in every canton.

One of the close results was on another government proposal, to approve the free trade agreement between the European Free Trade Association (of which Switzerland is a member) and Indonesia. The line-up of parties was similar to that on the electronic ID scheme (although on this one the Green Liberals were in favor), but the free trade agreement just got up, with a 51.6% “yes” vote and majorities in 20 of the 26 cantons.

But most of the attention was on the other question: the citizen-initiated question “Yes to a ban on full facial coverings,” more commonly known as the “burqa ban”. It was opposed by all the governing parties except for the far right. An opinion poll in January had given it 63% support, but it just scraped in with 51.2% in favor, a majority of about 67,000 votes.

The urban parts of the country, as you’d expect, were mostly against: Basel, Bern, Geneva and Zurich all voted “no”. The “yes” vote carried most of the rural cantons, although even there the majorities weren’t huge; 60.7% in Jura was the biggest. It’s some contrast to its obvious predecessor, the 2009 vote to ban construction of minarets, which had a “yes” vote of 57.5% overall and two-thirds majorities in several cantons.

Perhaps the incongruity of the ban, at a time when face masks are obligatory in many settings and are credited with saving lives on a large scale, was apparent to some voters. Or perhaps the far right’s attempts to beat the anti-Muslim drum are starting to seem a bit tired. Moral panics have a limited life-span, so the electorate could be willing to move on to other things.

Nor, to be fair, would anti-Muslim sentiment be the only thing driving the “yes” vote. Few would have been convinced by the claim that it was motivated by the need to be able to identify criminals, but many such bans have won support from some progressive voters who see them as a means to enhance women’s rights – although the weight of expert opinion suggests that they are counter-productive in that regard.

Only a handful of Swiss Muslims wear a full face veil anyway, so the practical effect of the measure will be negligible. Its importance is symbolic; it was intended, and will no doubt be taken, as a calculated insult to the Muslim community. But by the closeness of the result it may also symbolise that that hostility is on the wane.

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