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Photo finish expected in vote on pension reform

Voters on Sunday will decide on a planned overhaul of Switzerland’s old-age pension scheme. A neck-and-neck race is expected between supporters and opponents of the sweeping reform.

The project foresees raising the retirement age for women from 64 to 65 in line with men, a reduction in the so-called minimum conversion rate for assets accumulated in compulsory occupational pension plans to 6%, and a slight increase in value-added tax (VAT). To compensate, all new pensioners will receive an additional CHF70 ($73) a month.

The government and a slim parliamentary majority, backed by parties left of the centre, have argued that the reform is a reasonable and fair compromise, which is needed to shore up the finances of the main social security insurance scheme in an ageing society.

Opponents of the plan include the rightwing and the centre-right, as well as the far-left of the political spectrum. They say the younger generation will have to pay the price of the reform.

“Policy experts are torn, some argue that the reform is better than nothing, while others highlight the deficiencies. I would not want to bet money on the outcome of the vote,” says Patrick Emmenegger, political scientist at St Gallen University.

It is arguably one of the most important domestic issues to be decided by voters during the current four-year parliamentary term.

Previous attempts to amend the pension system over the past two decades have all failed, either in parliament or in nationwide votes.

Opinion poll

Pollsters say the result of the vote will be close. Surveys carried out over the past seven weeks by the leading GfS Bern research institute found support slipping over the last few weeks, but supporters still hold a slight advantage.

Apart from the left-right party divide, as well as that between urban and rural constituencies, the outcome of the vote is likely to be marked by a difference between voters in the main German-speaking part of the country and the French- and Italian-speaking regions.

Turnout is expected to be above average on Sunday but unlikely to go much beyond 53%. Experts say one of the reasons could be the high complexity of the issue at stake.

Tipping the balance?

Political observers have been struggling to pinpointdecisive trends or events that could tip the balance in favour or against the reform.

A key element of the campaign was the role and credibility of Interior Minister Alain Berset, who is in charge of social security and pension issues.

Old age pensioners living outside Switzerland were at the centre of the debate, notably at the beginning of the campaign in June, following a comment by a leading politician from the centre-right.

Her controversial proposal to cut the pensions of people who do not pay taxes or spend money as consumers in Switzerland caused an uproar among the Swiss Abroad community.

Some 160,000 expatriates, out of a total of 5.3 million Swiss citizens, are eligible to take part in Sunday’s vote.

September 24 votes

The proposed old age pension reform is one of two nationwide issues on the ballot sheets on September 24.

A parliamentary counter-proposal to boost agricultural food production also comes to a vote.

It is the third and final set of nationwide votes this year.