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Self-Interest or Solidarity?

The Referendum on Fiscal Equalisation in Switzerland
  • Sean Mueller EMAIL logo , Adrian Vatter and Charlie Schmid


This article puts the self-interest hypothesis to an empirical test by analysing the 2004 referendum on fiscal equalisation in Switzerland. That vote put forth a series of reforms which created regional winners and loser in terms of having to pay or receiving unconditional funding. Although Switzerland is usually portrayed as a paradigmatic case in terms of inter-regional solidarity and national integration, we show that rational and selfish cost-benefit calculations strongly mattered for the end-result. We rely on a multi-level model with referendum and other data on more than 2700 municipalities and all 26 cantons. More broadly, our findings confirm that rational choice theory works well for voting on straightforward monetary issues with a clearly defined group of winners and losers. However, symbolic interests such as party strength and cultural predispositions against state intervention and in favour of subsidiarity also matter and need to be taken into account alongside.


Research for this article has partly been funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (project grant No. 10001A_159343 and Ambizione grant no. PZ00P1_161257). We also thank Leonce Röth for comments on an earlier version and two anonymous reviewers for helpful advice.


Table A1:


Dependent variables
 %-yes votes (log.)Share of yes-votes in the fiscal equalisation referendum of 28 November 2004Swissvotes (2016)
 Turnout (log.)Share of valid votes from total of votes cast in the fiscal equalisation referendum of 28 November 2004Swissvotes (2016)
Independent variables (local level)
 Income (log.)Mean per capita income of resident population; year 2003ESTV (2016)
 AgeShare of people above 65 years old; year 2000BFS (2016)
 EducationProportion of people with tertiary education from total resident population between 26 and 65 years old; year 2000BFS (2016)
 German1 if the share of German-speaking resident is 50% or higher, else 0; year 2000BFS (2016)
 CatholicsShare of roman-catholic residents; year 2000BFS (2016)
 Party strengthVotes shares (FDP, CVP, SP and SVP) at the 2003 federal parliament elections (National Council)BFS (2016)
 Trust in governmentMeany yes-share in 8 low-conflict referenda voted between 2001 and 2003 (see also Table A2)Milic (2008), Swissvotes (2016)
 Population (log.)Total resident population; year 2004BFS (2016)
 ServicesShare of people working in the service sector, year 2001BFS (2016)
 CommutersShare of commuters from total of resident workforce and students, year 2000BFS (2016)
 ForeignersShare of foreign residents; year 2000BFS (2016)
Independent variables (regional level/context)
 Net benefitAbsolute difference in CHF between old and new federal system per canton divided by its populationFivaz and Ladner (2005), BR (2005)
 Gross benefitExpected payments arising out of the new fiscal equalisation system, in CHF per cantonal inhabitantFivaz and Ladner (2005), BR (2005)
 Compulsory voting1 for Schaffhausen, where voting is compulsory, 0 for all other contextsBühlmann and Freitag (2006)
Table A2:

Low-conflict referenda, 2001–2003.

No.DateTitlePro-Government (%)
4754.3.2001Citizen’s initiative “For lower-priced medicines”69.1
47910.6.2001Federal decree of 15 December 2000 on withdrawal of the duty to have permission to create new bishoprics64.2
4882.6.2002Citizen’s initiative “For mother and child – protection of the unborn child and assistance for mothers in need”81.8
49022.9.2002Federal law on the electricity sector47.4
4939.2.2003Federal decree on amendment to citizens’ rights70.4
4949.2.2003Federal law on adjusting canton’s contributions to hospital costs77.4
49518.5.2003Amendment to the Federal law on army and military administration76.0
49618.5.2003Federal law on civil defence80.6
  1. Source: Milic (2008), English titles from [October 2016].

Table A3:

Descriptive statistics.

%-yes votes (log.)27642.
Turnout (log.)27642.
Income (log.)273010.412.511.011.00.2
Population (log.)27643.
FDP vote share27640.090.817.015.310.9
CVP vote share27640.088.317.09.318.6
SVP vote share27640.093.029.528.815.9
SP vote share27640.088.019.919.210.2
Trust in government276432.866.769.470.05.0
Gross benefits/10026−14.5717.935.464.475.77
Net benefits/10026−11.856.240.670.571.49
Compulsory voting26010.010.1


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Published Online: 2017-4-27
Published in Print: 2016-12-20

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