Historic verdict could force Swiss re-vote on family tax breaks

The judges at Switzerland's supreme court made a historic ruling. © Keystone/Laurent Gillieron

The Supreme Court has annulled the result of a controversial nationwide vote about tax breaks for families, paving the way for a re-run of the ballot – a first in the history of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.

This content was published on April 10, 2019

The judges ruled that the government had failed to provide correct information to voters on a proposal to ensure equal tax treatment for married and unmarried couples, according to a Federal Court statement published on Wednesday.

“The incomplete and intransparent information by the government violated the freedom of vote. Keeping in mind the close result and the severe nature of the irregularities, it is possible that the outcome of the ballot could have been different,” the statement said.

Last year, the government admitted the misinformation, saying the number of couples that would be affected was wrongly reported. Instead of the 80,000 married and registered couples that were in line to benefit from reduced taxes, it was 454,000 couples.

The initiative by the Christian Democratic Party was narrowly rejected in a nationwide vote in February 2016.


In an initial reaction, the centrist party welcomed the verdict and called on the government to improve its information policy. “Today’s decision is a boost for the political rights of Swiss voters,” the party said.

In June 2018, it lodged an appeal against the result, arguing the government’s campaign was based on false statistics.

Critics, however, argue that the court decision could set a precedent for a flood of complaints, undermining direct democracy. 

For its part, the government said it had taken note of the ruling and it would consider the next steps when the detailed verdict is published.

Observers say the government and parliament could present a counter-proposal for a legal amendment allowing the initiative committee to withdraw its initiative.  


For Vincent Martenet, a professor of law at the university of Lausanne, the court verdict is not a surprise. It shows the solid legal basis of Switzerland’s democratic system.

Voters have a right to be informed correctly, Martenet is quoted as saying.

It is the first time in recent Swiss history that the Federal Court ordered an annulment of a nationwide vote result, according to the Federal Chancellery.

In 2008, the highest court rejected a demand to cancel the result of vote on a corporate tax reform, saying a re-run of the ballot would undermine legal security.

However, the Federal Court declared invalid several results from cantonal and local votes over the past 100 years. At a national level, the court was only given right to rule on votes in 2007.

Back in the 19th century, the House of Representatives annulled the result of the 1854 elections in canton TicinoExternal link following reports of violence and voter intimidation.

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