Direct democracy: Regional ‘burqa ban’ up for vote in Switzerland

Direct democracy: Regional 'burqa ban' up for vote in Switzerland
The government of St Gallen says the proposed ‘burqa vote’ is unnecessary. File photo: Patrick Denker
A second Swiss canton will vote Sunday on whether to introduce a regional “burqa ban”, a controversial law that would prohibit all face-covering garments in public spaces.

The ballot in northeastern St. Gallen is to be held as voters across the country also determine whether a moratorium on genetically modified crops should become a full-out ban.

St. Gallen is expected to follow the example of the southern canton of Ticino, where a law was introduced two years ago which appeared to be aimed at burqas and other Muslim veils.

Read also: Top Swiss court vetoes cantonal vote on school ‘headgear ban’

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 was opposed by the regional government but narrowly passed the regional parliament with support from the populist right and centre parties.

But the issue is being put to the people after the Green Party and Young Socialists demanded a referendum.

Opponents of the law believe it is populist scaremongering and not that St. Gallen already has a law banning face coverings in potentially dangerous situations such as political rallies and sports events.

The text of the proposed law, first drafted following uproar in the canton over a girl who wore a full-face veil to school, is problematic, according to Fredy Fassler, a socialist in charge of security and justice in St. Gallen.

It does not define when a woman wearing a burqa constitutes a danger, and critics “worry the sanctions will be unpredictable and arbitrary”, he told daily newspaper Le Temps.

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.

The government has now launched a counter proposal including changes that would see people who force women to wear a burqa or niqab punished with a prison sentence of up to three years or by fines.

All Swiss voters will eventually cast ballots on the issue after the populist right-wing 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.


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