Swiss voters flatly reject ‘green’ immigration cap, scrapping tax breaks for the rich: initial results

A man casts his voting ballot at the polling station in the Spitalacker school in Bern on Nov 29, 2014. The Swiss voted early on Sunday in three national referendums, including one calling for dramatic immigration cuts in the name of saving the
A man casts his voting ballot at the polling station in the Spitalacker school in Bern on Nov 29, 2014. The Swiss voted early on Sunday in three national referendums, including one calling for dramatic immigration cuts in the name of saving the environment, in polling open for just two hours. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP) - The Swiss rejected three issues put to a popular vote Sunday, including calls to cap immigration in the name of saving the environment, according to initial results and projections.

Results published by a handful of the country’s 26 cantons, including Geneva, showed voters flatly rejecting the so-called Ecopop initiative, as well as bids to scrap special tax breaks for rich foreigners living but not working in Switzerland, and on forcing the central bank to increase its gold reserves.

Estimates by polling agency gfs.bern, published by public broadcaster RTS, indicated that a full 74 percent of voters nationwide said “no” to Ecopop, which aimed to dramatically cut immigration to preserve the Alpine nation’s idyllic landscape. Twenty-six percent were seen voting in favour, according to those estimates.

A full 78 percent had meanwhile voted down the so-called Gold initiative, which would force the Swiss National Bank to boost its gold reserves to at least 20 percent of its holdings, nearly three times more than today’s level of 7 percent, that estimate indicated. Only 22 percent of voters were believed to have approved that move.

And 60 percent of voters were believed to have turned down the bid to ditch the special tax breaks handed to wealthy foreign residents, who today can choose to be levied on their spending rather than income. Only 40 percent were seen voting in favour, according to gfs.bern.

In Geneva, which is home to the most beneficiaries in Switzerland of those special tax-breaks, nearly 69 percent voted against the initiative and to thus keep the current system in place, according to results based on 95 percent of votes.

Switzerland counts 5,729 millionaires and billionaires with foreign passports, who together pay around one billion Swiss francs (S$1.35 billion) in taxes annually.

The measures had made it to plebiscites under Switzerland's famous form of direct democracy.

A referendum last February did pass an initiative to impose quotas for immigration from European Union, of which Switzerland is not a member. That caught many off guard and threw Switzerland's relations with the bloc into turmoil.

Surveys before Sunday's polls showed that the anti-immigration referendum had gained momentum in recent weeks but was still doomed to fail.

Foreign nationals already make up nearly a quarter of Switzerland's eight million inhabitants, official statistics show.

"It's already getting too crowded here," Anita Messere of the Ecopop committee had said, arguing that the inhabitable plains were being covered in concrete at a rate of more than one metre per second. The campaign wanted to cap immigration growth at around 16,000 people annually.

"I think this is a good initiative," said Montserrat, a 61-year-old voter who cast her ballot by mail and who refused to give her last name. "Too many people are coming in now. We can hardly breathe as it is," she told AFP.

The government, all political parties, employers and unions have rejected the initiative, slammed by some as xenophobic and by others as a threat to Switzerland's economy which depends heavily on immigrant labour.

Christian Luescher, a parliamentarian for the Liberal Party and co-chair of the committee opposing Ecopop, described the initiative as "absolutely absurd", and warned it would "impoverish our country".

Many voters agree.

"It's too tough, and even dangerous," said Edgar Kaeser, 80, a Geneva voter who cast his ballot by post. "There should be limits on immigration, but they have to be intelligent, and we already have that," he told AFP.

"It's a joke," lamented another voter, 37-year-old Sebastian Kialanda.

For the referendum on scrapping tax breaks for rich residents, backers of the system insist wealthy foreigners contribute substantially to Swiss tax coffers and inject huge sums directly into the local economy, warning many will leave the country if they face higher taxation.

"You'd have to be completely crazy to wave goodbye to this godsend to our economy," Luescher said.

The third issue of making the Swiss National Bank boost its gold reserves has stirred global gold markets.

Analysts have warned the bank would be forced to buy around 10 percent of the annual global gold production through 2019 to meet that requirement.