By Silke Koltrowitz and Marina Depetris
Swiss voters rejected by a wide margin on Sunday a proposal to introduce a guaranteed basic income for everyone living in the wealthy country after an uneasy debate about the future of work at a time of increasing automation.
Supporters had said introducing a monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,563) per adult and 625 francs per child under 18 no matter how much they work would promote human dignity and public service.
Opponents, including the government, said it would cost too much and weaken the economy.
Projections by the GFS polling outfit for Swiss broadcaster SRF showed nearly four out of five voters opposed the bold social experiment launched by Basel cafe owner Daniel Haeni and allies in a vote under the Swiss system of direct democracy.
Haeni acknowledged defeat but claimed a moral victory.
“As a businessman I am a realist and had reckoned with 15 percent support, now it looks like more than 20 percent or maybe even 25 percent. I find that fabulous and sensational,” he told SRF.
“When I see the media interest, from abroad as well, then I say we are setting a trend.”
Conservative Switzerland is the first country to hold a national referendum on an unconditional basic income, but others including Finland are examining similar plans as societies ponder a world in which robots replace humans in the workforce.
Olivier, a 26-year-old carpenter who works on construction sites and runs a small business where he designs and builds furniture, said he voted “yes” to the initiative.
“For me it would be a great opportunity to put my focus on my passion and not go to work just for a living,” he said.
Champions of the plan had painted just such a future in a poster bigger than a soccer field asking “What would you do if your income was secure?” They had also marched as robots down Zurich’s high street and had handed out free 10-franc notes.
A Bern man who gave his name only as Stephan said he supported the idea as a “sustainable solution for society”.
“I think people will go on working because it is a human need to be useful, to do meaningful action. In fact, I have the impression that people would be even more productive if they are productive by themselves instead of being obliged to be productive,” he said.
A woman named Meleanie said she reluctantly voted “no”.
“I find that it is a real danger that once people just get their basic needs covered society doesn’t feel responsible anymore to look after the ones who can’t really handle the situation on their own”, she said.
Employers also heaved a sigh of relief that Switzerland, where unemployment is only around 3.5 percent, had not become the first country to embrace such a path-breaking measure.
The Swiss government had urged voters to reject the campaign, saying the scheme would cost too much and undermine societal cohesion.
The plan included replacing in full or in part what people got from social benefits.
The government estimated the proposal would have cost 208 billion Swiss francs a year, significantly weakened the economy and discouraged people, especially low earners, from working.
Much of the cost could have been covered by existing social security payments, but sharp spending cuts or tax increases would have had to make up a remaining gap of 25 billion.
An advanced social safety net already supports people who cannot pay themselves for their livelihood. Fewer than seven percent of people lived in poverty in 2014, official data show.
In a separate vote on Sunday, Swiss voters also clearly rejected a proposal to require state-controlled companies, such as Swisscom, not to seek to make a profit.
The government had warned that accepting the initiative would hurt the companies’ competitiveness and could lead to higher taxes.