Learning the hard way?

It is well known that there are people who actually like getting slapped – but it is puzzling to discover such a penchant with the right-wing parties and business organizations in Switzerland. Or then it must be some mixture of naïveté and stubbornness that makes them impermeable to learning any lesson from past failures. The latest slap is the massive (almost 73% of the votes) rejection of occupational pension cutbacks at the polls, in a direct democratic referendum that took place this Sunday March 7th. The result is a downright triumph for the left and trade unions – especially in a country where the combined Left (Social Democrats and Greens) gained less than 30% of the votes in the last national parliamentary elections.

However, the result of the referendum is not at all surprising to anyone familiar with welfare politics in Switzerland (and – for that matter – OECD democracies in general). And it is not – contrary to what the conservative newspaper NZZ, business leaders and right-wing politicians tried to argue in their first reactions – the result of a confusing campaign, a “momentary state of uncertainty” among voters or their “denial of reality”. Rather, some denial of political realities seems to be prevailing among those parties who pushed this proposal through parliament and into the direct democratic circus maximus. Indeed, the result of the referendum is exactly what we would expect in the light of the past 15 years of research on welfare politics in the age of austerity. Here’s why.

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