GENEVA, Nov 29 — Swiss voters turned out in force to back the law behind the country’s Covid pass in a referendum yesterday, following a tense campaign marked by unprecedented levels of hostility.

The law established the legal basis for the so-called Covid certificate to indicate that a person has been vaccinated or has recovered from the disease.

The certificate has been required since September for access to restaurants, cinemas, other indoor spaces and outdoor crowded events.

Opponents successfully triggered a referendum on the certificate law, claiming the pass was creating an “apartheid” system.

Some 62 per cent supported the law in a contest that saw voters surge to fill in their ballots.

The 65 per cent turnout was the fourth-highest since women were granted the vote in 1971, in a country where the average referendum turnout is 46 per cent.

The 2.2 million ‘yes’ votes, in a country of 8.6 million people, “is, to my knowledge, the highest number of votes ever obtained by a law challenged by referendum. It is an extremely strong result,” Health Minister Alain Berset told journalists.

“I also believe that we are the only country in the world where the public vote on elements affecting the management of the pandemic,” he added.

The referendum came as the new Covid-19 variant of concern Omicron swept around the world, with the Swiss declaring their first probable case yesterday in a person who returned from South Africa a week ago.

The vote also came with Switzerland battling a fifth wave of the pandemic, with the numbers of new Covid cases seven times higher than in mid-October.

Insults and death threats

Under Switzerland’s direct democracy system, votes are typically held four times a year on a range of subjects. Citizens can propose new initiatives, or trigger referendums on government policy by gathering enough signatures, as happened on the Covid certificate law.

As in much of Europe, Switzerland has seen growing anger over restrictions aimed at reining in the pandemic, and pressure to get vaccinated.

But in a country where the regular votes normally take place in a climate of civility and measured debate, the tensions around the Covid law vote came as a shock.

Police upped security around several politicians who have faced a flood of insults and even death threats, including Berset.

The right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) — the biggest in the wealthy Alpine nation — was the only party opposed the Covid law and the latitude it gives the government to act.

SVP lawmaker Jean-Luc Addor told public broadcaster RTS that the response to the pandemic was dividing society by vaccination status.

“Here we are talking about 40 per cent of the population who disagree with official policy... who no longer trust the authorities,” he said.

Cowbell protests

The campaign saw repeated protests, often led by the so-called “Freiheitstrychler”, or “Freedom ringers” — men dressed in white shirts embroidered with edelweiss flowers and with two large cowbells suspended from a yoke resting on their shoulders.

Some of the demonstrations led to clashes with police.

The police fenced off the seat of government and parliament in Bern yesterday in anticipation of protests, but only a few dozen demonstrators showed up.

The Mass-Voll protest movement claimed the result was illegitimate due to “massive irregularities”, saying the question on the ballot was “misleading”.

Berset called for “unity, and respect for the decision taken”.

Michelle Cailler, a spokeswoman for the Friends of the Constitution group which opposed the law, said that granting such powers to the government was “extremely dangerous for democracy”.

“This law violates a number of constitutional rights, and in particular Article 10 on personal freedom with this Covid certificate, which establishes a disguised mandatory vaccination,” she told AFP after the vote.

Some 65 per cent of the Swiss population is fully immunised and in the Sunday newspapers, Swiss President Guy Parmelin urged more people to come forward to get jabbed.

A Link Institute survey of 1,300 people, for SonntagsBlick newspaper, found that 53 per cent were in favour of mandatory vaccination. — AFP