Switzerland will hold two referendums on Sunday, including a controversial call by the far-right for a blanket ban on the construction of minarets.
The Swiss will also decide whether to stop weapons exports, a proposal opposed by the government which has warned that restrictions on foreign arms sales could put some 5,100 jobs at risk.
But the spotlight is likely to be trained on the anti-minaret proposal which was brought by a far-right party which claims that the turrets or towers attached to mosques symbolise a “political-religious claim to power.”
The Swiss government has asked the population to reject the call, arguing that accepting a ban would bring about “incomprehension overseas and harm Switzerland’s image.”
The ruling Swiss People’s Party (SVP) had forced a referendum under Swiss regulations on the issue after collecting 100,000 signatures within 18 months from eligible voters.
In a bid to push their case, the SVP has turned to a controversial poster campaign depicting a burqa-clad woman against a background of a Swiss flag upon which several minarets resembling missiles are erected.
The poster sparked an uproar in some quarters, with Switzerland’s Commission Against Racism saying that the campaign defamed the country’s Muslim minority, stirred up hate and could threaten public peace.
Government calls for public to vote against ban
Determined to stop the SVP from gaining sympathisers to their cause, the government issued statements calling on the population to vote against the proposal on several occasions.
Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz even deployed a video broadcast to the nation, saying: “Muslims should be able to practice their religion and have access to minarets in Switzerland too. But the call of the muezzin will not sound here.”
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who incidentally is a member of the right-wing SVP, also said that a ban on minarets is against human rights and puts “in peril religious peace.”
Religious groups reportedly united
Religious groups, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, also came out in a rare show of unity against the right-wing proposal.
Diplomatically, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference had expressed quiet confidence that Switzerland would turn down the call.
“We are sure that the people of Switzerland will reach the best consensus and will take the best decision – this is an old democratic society,” he said.
Islam is the second largest religion in Switzerland after Christianity with 400,000 followers out of a population of 7.5 million. Four minarets have been built and the construction of a fifth is planned.
Opinion polls suggest to date that the majority of the Swiss – 53 percent, would reject the proposal to ban minarets.
Arms sales also on agenda
Meanwhile, polls also indicate that voters are likely to reject a bid to ban weapons export.
Proponents of the referendum are pushing their case by training the spotlight on arm sales to conflict-ridden countries, such as Pakistan.
“In 2008, Pakistan, a country in the grip of a significant armed conflict, topped” Swiss exports of war material, said the Group for a Switzerland without an Army (GSSA), which initiated the referendum.