Greens use people power to broaden their reach

The number of plane passengers in Switzerland increased by 60% between 2000 and 2017 according to official data. Keystone

The Green Party is considering launching a people’s initiative after parliament rejected plans for a tax on plane tickets in discussions about a legal reform last month.

This content was published on January 11, 2019 - 17:00

The announcement by the Greens came hot on the heels of an online opinion poll which found a huge majority of respondents supported the idea of a carbon dioxide levy between CHF12 to CHF50 ($12.20-$50.80) on plane tickets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It also comes as parties begin to gear up for campaigning ahead of October’s parliamentary elections. The timing is thus not haphazard: this is direct democratic politics, Swiss-style.

A political group – in this case from the left – tries to push its agenda by tackling a topical issue, in this case climate change. Yet despite enjoying broad public support, it finds itself unable to secure the votes in parliament to push through its agenda, and it thus resorts to a proven method – a people’s initiative.

Price of mobility

The facts about the impact on the environment of increasing mobility and low prices for plane tickets were clearly spelt out during the debate in the House of Representatives in December.

Swiss consumers are frequent flyers with the number of passengers increasing by 60% between 2000 and 2017.

As a result, jet planes account for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in Switzerland while the percentage is just 3% on average in European Union countries – some of which have already introduced a CO2 tax on plane tickets.

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Mooting the idea of launching a people’s initiative, the president of the Green Party, Regula Rytz, was keen to show that she is willing to use the tools of direct democracy to put pressure on parliament to change its mind.

In fact, the Senate, the other parliamentary chamber, is still to tackle the reform of the CO2 law, relaunching the debate on possible ways of addressing climate change.

“If the Senate fails to agree on a CO2 tax on plane tickets in the updated law, we will have to introduce the levy through a constitutional amendment,” Rytz was quoted as saying by the Blick newspaper.

It may be argued that the Greens are trying to make the most of their current political high. Recent polls found the environmentalist party among those with good chances of increasing their support in October’s parliamentary elections.

Campaign tool

People’s initiatives are a tried and tested method for parties on the right and the left to complement their election campaigns.

Even more moderate parties at the political centre have used initiatives as a means of securing additional votes.

The latest case in point is the centrist Christian Democratic Party, which put the issue of rising health costs – notably health insurance premiums – high on their campaign agenda.

The old age pension scheme, a traditional theme of the Social Democrats, is now also on the radar of the Swiss People’s Party ahead of the elections, who are linking a reform of social security with proposed spending cuts in development aid.

In this light, it is a perfectly logical step for the Green Party to use an environmental issue to attract media attention and boost its standing among voters.

Another hot and dry summer this year would no doubt further increase the chances of the environmentalists.

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