I recall a conversation I had with my father on European politics a couple of months ago in which I praised the Swiss political system and in particular the ability of the Swiss people to launch initiatives to propose legislation changes or their right to hold referendums against existing laws. I remember that my father (who is not Swiss) promptly dismissed the power of the initiative by arguing that the Swiss people were not using the so-called people’s initiative for issues that really mattered, for instance to veto the recent and highly controversial purchase of 22 Swedish Gripen fighter planes for CHF3.1 billion. I replied to my father that it was not a done deal and that I was expecting the Left to bring forward an initiative with a view to holding a referendum against the planned purchase given that in this country only 50,000 signatures would be necessary to do so (within a time frame of 100 days).

Avion de combat référendum déposé avec près de 100'000 signatures_www.bluewin.chScreenshot of the story as it appeared on bluewin.ch, photo Keystone

As the above screenshot of the platform I have to put up with each time I log out of bluewin (the free email service offered by Swisscom which I truly abhor as it is nothing more than ‘infotainment’) will demonstrate, I was proved right: more than 100,000 signatures were handed in to the Swiss Federal Chancellery today. This means that, even though the Swiss parliament gave the green light for the purchase of the planes in September of last year, the final decision regarding the purchase will be submitted to the will of the Swiss people in the ballot some time this year (with a bit of luck on the date of my birthday in May).

To me this initiative against the purchase of 22 Gripen fighter planes is an example of direct democracy at its best as I firmly believe that not only is this plane not suited to our country, but it is not even necessary given that the existing fleet of FA/18 aircraft [despite the recent crash] should be sufficient to defend our national airspace. In addition, there is a risk that the plane will turn out to be more expensive than initially budgeted (some fear that it might end up costing the Swiss tax payer as much as CHF10 billion).

Unfortunately, although one could argue that the sum of CHF3.1 billion could be put to much better use elsewhere (for instance into the promotion of renewable energies or by making our homes more energy efficient, both of which would result in job creation), this will not be the subject of the vote: the Swiss people will only be allowed to vote on whether or not they wish that CHF300mn be allotted from the Swiss military budget each year over a period of ten years to the purchase of these planes. However, an initiative could be launched to reduce the military budget … and this might not be that remote a possibility in the light of the fact that there have already been three anti-conscription initiatives in this country over the past 25 years.

To finish on another positive note: unlike in 1993 when the Swiss government had made too generous a down payment to the Americans when they bought the FA/18 aircraft (which is why the referendum against the purchase was turned down by the Swiss people by a majority 57%), this time the government should be able to cancel the contract, so that there is a chance that the Swiss people will refuse to buy the planes …