Expat guide to Switzerland's national referendums in November 2021

Expat guide to Switzerland's national referendums in November 2021

With only a few weeks to go before Switzerland goes to the polls in November 2021, here is what expats need to know about the issues being voted on.

Referendums in Switzerland in November 2021

Switzerland goes to the polls in three national referendums each year, where policy from education to social security is decided upon. The referendums being voted on a national level are decided by three different avenues: either a vote on a government policy, a vote on a policy made by a specific political party, or a “popular initiative”, where issues are brought to the ballot by the general public.

The referendums will take place on November 28, and will include a series of cantonal and local votes alongside the national poll. To find out what local issues are being voted on in your area, please consult the official government website.

The Swiss Nursing Initiative hopes to boost funding for healthcare

The first issue on the ballot is a popular proposal to support and increase the number of nurses working in the Swiss healthcare system. The “Nursing Initiative” or Pflegeinitiative seeks to improve working conditions for nurses, guarantee that there will be enough nurses in Swiss hospitals, and give them a more competitive salary.

Background to the Nursing Initiative referendum

A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that Swiss nurses were paid the third-lowest amount in the bloc compared with average income. The Swiss Association for Nursing Science, which launched the referendum in 2017, say that this is proof that nurses in Switzerland require extra support.

In response to the popular initiative, the Swiss government has submitted a counter-proposal, promising over 1 billion Swiss francs to improve higher education and improve training for nurses. However, supporters of the referendum say that this would not improve working conditions or stop workers from “dropping out.”

Who supports and doesn't support the Nursing Initiative?

Supporters of the referendum say that their proposal is the only way to guarantee quality of care and patient security. They maintain that a higher number of nurses per hospital team is integral to job satisfaction and reducing stress levels. Partially due to the pandemic, this referendum has received large support from the wider public.

Despite this, there are still some opponents of the initiative. The “No” campaign says that the wording of the initiative “goes too far”, as it makes the government the guarantor of work contracts and salaries, a practice unheard of in Switzerland. They note that a guarantee of basic medical care is already a Swiss law, and that the counter-proposal by the government, which already has approval, is cheaper and could be implemented faster.

Switzerland votes on its own COVID laws

Perhaps the most controversial referendum up for vote in Switzerland is on the COVID-19 Act. This act is a series of laws related to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, such as the COVID certificate requirement, mask mandates and travel restrictions.

This is the second time the COVID Act has come up for a vote

The law has been subject to a referendum before, with 60 percent of voters choosing to side with the government in June 2021. Now, after a new signature campaign by opposition activists, the laws will be voted on again. This is the first time in Swiss history that the same issue has been voted on again in the same year.

Views for and against the COVID-19 Act in Switzerland

Supporters of the act say the country has been able to get back to normal because of the new restrictions. They note that the current rules will allow Switzerland to stay open while still reducing the risks involved in having contact with the virus, as well as provide continued relief to people who have lost their jobs or are claiming social security.

Despite wide support for the laws in June, politicians are concerned that new rules made after the last referendum, such as the certificate requirement, may sway voters to reject the law. Many businesses and entrepreneurs have been hit hard financially by the new regulations, and it is unclear how popular the current rules are among voters.  

Swiss referendum to appoint federal judges by lottery

Concluding the national list, the Justice-Initiative (Justiz-Initiative) is a new referendum to change how federal judges are given their roles. The current system has the Swiss government vote to appoint judges to the Supreme Court of Switzerland, serving a six-year term before being appointed again.

Swiss judges to be decided by committee

The referendum is designed to remove this process. Instead, a non-partisan committee would assemble a pool of candidates based on political stance, language, gender and other legal criteria. These candidates would then be selected by a “lottery”; in simple terms, a hat filled with the judges' names.

Votes for and against the Justice-Initiative

Supporters of the referendum say that the current judicial system has become too partisan, as political parties have a large sway on who gets appointed. The new system would allow the judges to make impartial, non-partisan decisions, which advocates say will separate the political from the legal.

As this bill is designed to take responsibility away from the Swiss parliament, both chambers voted almost unanimously to reject the proposal. Alongside politicians, other opponents of the vote say that it would replace a democratic decision with pure luck, as there is no way of guaranteeing the best candidate for the position will get it.

Find out more about the Swiss referendums in November 2021

For more information on all the national referendums, the Canton of Zurich has a handy tool that you can use to find out what is being proposed, and the arguments for and against each referendum (in German). To find out more, check out their official website.

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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