Swiss region overwhelmingly votes for 'burqa ban'

Nina LARSON
Swiss supporters of the ban insisted in campaign literature that "it is integral to our culture and our values to be able to look each other in the eyes without hiding"

A second Swiss canton will introduce a regional "burqa ban", after voters in St. Gallen on Sunday emphatically backed prohibiting all face-covering garments in public spaces.

At the same time, voters across Switzerland resoundingly rejected initiatives aimed at boosting local farming and promoting more ethical and environmental standards in food production, amid fears of cost hikes and reduced consumer choice.

In the northeastern canton of St. Gallen, nearly 67 percent of voters came out in favour of introducing the implicit "burqa ban", according to official results, which showed turnout was 36 percent.

That paves the way for the canton to follow the example of the southern region of Ticino, where a law was introduced two years ago that appeared to be aimed at burqas and other Muslim veils.

Three other cantons -- Zurich, Solothurn and Glarus -- have rejected introducing such bans in recent years.

A text stipulating that "any person who renders themselves unrecognisable by covering their face in a public space, and thus endangers public security or social and religious peace will be fined" was adopted by lawmakers in St. Gallen late last year.

That law passed the regional parliament with support from the populist right and centre parties -- but the issue was put to the people after the Green and Green Liberal parties demanded a referendum.

Supporters of the ban insisted in campaign literature that "it is integral to our culture and our values to be able to look each other in the eyes without hiding".

- 'Islamophobic' -

The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland on Sunday slammed the ban as "Islamophobic".

Other opponents have insisted the ban was useless, stressing that very few women wear burqas or other face-covering veils in St. Gallen.

Opponents have also pointed out that the canton already has a law prohibiting face-covering during demonstrations that require police authorisation as well as at sporting events.

A review published recently on the effect of the law introduced in Ticino in 2016 meanwhile showed that football fans had felt the most impact, while fines for burqa-use could be counted on one hand, the ATS news agency reported.

Switzerland's government last year opposed an initiative aimed at creating a nationwide burqa ban, saying it should be up to the regions to determine if such measures are appropriate.

Voters across Switzerland are however expected to be called to vote on the issue next year after the populist rightwing Swiss People's Party gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to put any subject to a referendum as part of Switzerland's famous direct democratic system.

- Swiss snub 'fair food' -

At the national level, the Swiss meanwhile overwhelmingly rejected two schemes linked to agriculture and food security which urged a shift towards more ethical and environmentally friendly food production, as well as protection for Swiss farmers against cheap food imports.

The final results showed that 61 and 68 percent of voters respectively rejected the "Fair Food" and "Food Sovereignty" initiatives.

The "Food Sovereignty" initiative, which had the backing of Switzerland's powerful farmers' union, had among other things called for turning a moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMO) into a total ban.

Early polls had suggested strong backing for both initiatives, but support fell after the government, parliament and other opponents argued they could send prices skyrocketing, limit consumer choice and might violate Switzerland's international trade obligations.

Geneva and three other French-speaking cantons supported both initiatives, but the German-speaking part of the country voted massively against them.

Also on Sunday, Swiss voters overwhelmingly backed a proposal to enshrine support for cycling in the constitution.

All 26 cantons and nearly 74 percent of voters came out in favour of adding an article to the constitution giving federal authorities more responsibility for developing cycling paths across the country.

The text meanwhile only provides federal authorities with the possibility of stepping in on matters related to promoting cycling without obliging them to do so, and the cantons are expected to remain largely in charge.

The national votes this time failed to garner much excitement, resulting in below-average turnout, with only 37 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots.