Switzerland votes on a series of issues

But the two anti-pesticide proposals have triggered the most noise and fury ahead of Sunday's vote

Switzerland votes Sunday on proposals to ban synthetic pesticides following a campaign that has shattered the idyllic image of peaceful Swiss Alpine pastures by sharply dividing opinion. The Swiss are also voting on a series of hot topics, including anti-terror measures and Covid-19 laws, AFP reports. Results will be known before the end of the day.

On one of the issues, voters are urged to decide whether they approve a Covid-19 law that extends government powers to fight the pandemic and mitigate its consequences on society and the economy. Under the proposal, any emergency measures introduced by the government - as with its moves to combat the pandemic - should be time-limited and therefore need firming up if they are to continue. The laws also regulate financial aid granted to individuals and businesses, including compensation for loss of income, and support for cultural organisations. 

This referendum seems set to pass comfortably. But it is the two anti-pesticide proposals that have triggered the most noise, in an electoral campaign marked by fiery debates between farmers.

The first popular initiative, entitled "For a Switzerland free from synthetic pesticides", calls for a domestic ban within 10 years, while imported foodstuffs produced using such pesticides would also be outlawed. Under the second, "For clean drinking water and healthy food", only farms that do not use pesticides and use antibiotics only to treat sick animals would be eligible for government subsidies. The amount of liquid manure being used on fields, and thereby potentially entering the water system, would also be limited.

Environmentalists and the political left back both initiatives. The Swiss government wants a double "No" vote, arguing the proposals would undermine national food sovereignty.

The campaign boiled over in the western Vaud region when arsonists torched a trailer in a field displaying banners calling for a "No" vote, infuriating farmers. Meanwhile, farmers in the "Yes" campaign say they have been the victims of insults, threats and intimidation.

Switzerland is also home to Syngenta, one of the largest manufacturers of plant protection products, which was bought by the Chinese giant ChemChina in 2017. 

Under Switzerland's direct democracy system, referendums and popular votes occur every few months at national, regional and local levels. Any idea from the public can be put to a national vote as long as it gathers 100,000 signatures from the 8.6 million population. Meanwhile, 50,000 signatures are needed to trigger a referendum on new laws agreed by parliament.

Environmental protection is also at stake in a referendum on new carbon dioxide laws. The law would use tax policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% of 1990 levels by 2030 - including financial incentives to install charging points for electric vehicles and to market vehicles that consume less fuel.

It would also increase the tax on fuel oil and natural gas, as well as introduce a tax on outbound flight tickets. Opponents say the measures will be expensive and mainly affect people on low and middle incomes. Polls suggest the outcome hangs in the balance.

A clear majority, however, is expected to back extending police powers to combat terrorism, despite warnings from the United Nations and Amnesty International. The law allows the police to take preventative action more easily when faced with a "potential terrorist".

If the police believe that someone over the age of 12 is contemplating violent actions, the law allows them to conduct greater surveillance, limit their movements and oblige them to face questioning. And with a court order, they can also place anyone over the age of 15 under house arrest for up to nine months. 

The country has so far been spared the large-scale attacks seen in European neighbours, but the authorities nonetheless insist the threat level is high. Still, left-wing opponents of the law believe it endangers Switzerland's human rights heritage.

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