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Swiss to vote on pensions, retirement age

Swiss to vote on pensions, retirement age

Switzerland, with an ageing population facing an ever-swelling cost of living, is holding referendums Sunday on two initiatives which would reshape pensioners’ lives in different ways.

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A proposal to gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 looks set to fail, but a second proposal seeking to boost pension payments could squeak through.

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That proposal, put forward by Swiss trade unions and entitled “Better living in retirement”, calls for a 13th monthly pension payment each year, similar to the “13th month” salary many employees receive in Switzerland and other European countries.

Opinion polls indicate that most Swiss voters favour the initiative, although the “yes” lead has dwindled, and the outcome remains unclear.

Monthly social security payments in Switzerland can rise to 2,450 Swiss francs ($2,780) for individuals and 3,675 francs for married couples.

The payments do not go far in a country consistently ranked among the most expensive in the world.

Rent for a typical two-bedroom apartment in Swiss cities is at least 3,000 francs, and a coffee costs upwards of five francs.

If the Swiss approve the shift, they would not be the first in Europe — neighbouring Liechtenstein, another pricey nation which uses the Swiss franc, has had a similar system in place for years.

“There is a purchasing power crisis,” said Pierre-Yves Maillard, head of the Swiss Trade Union Federation (SGB) and part of the “yes” campaign.

“Retirees are seeing their living standards erode,” he told AFP last week.

“The cost of living just keeps soaring,” agreed Jakob Hauri, a retiree quoted by the campaign.

Left-leaning parties support the initiative, but it is being fiercely fought by right-wing and centrist parties, and the Swiss government and parliament officially oppose it.

The government has said the proposed hike would cost more than four billion Swiss francs a year, warning it would require tax increases and could threaten the financial stability of the social security system.

It also maintains there would be limited social benefit from the proposed change, which would hand additional payments to all pensioners, regardless of their financial situation.

“If the initiative passes, a lot of retirees will receive a 13th social security payment even though they don’t really need it,” it warned.

For the hard-right Swiss People’s Party, the “irresponsible” initiative will allow freeloaders to deplete the social security system.

Switzerland’s largest party has been striving to drum up opposition with adverts, including one showing 100-franc notes being sucked down a drain.

That campaign seems to have had an effect.

In the latest survey carried out by gfs.bern for public broadcaster SSR, 53 percent of respondents said they backed the initiative, while 43 percent opposed it.

The support is down from 61 percent in a similar poll less than a month earlier.

It is also increasingly uncertain whether the initiative will garner the double-majority needed to pass, by winning both the popular vote and a majority in most of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

“We are hopeful,” Maillard said.

Switzerland’s direct democracy system is also tackling Sunday a proposal from the youth branch of the right-wing Liberal Party to gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 over the next decade to ensure full financing of the pension system.

The vote comes less than two years after Swiss voters narrowly opted to raise the retirement age for women from 64 to 65, to match the retirement age for men.

But the initiative appears dead in the water. Latest surveys indicate only 35 percent of those questioned favour such a move, while 63 percent oppose it.

Most people vote in advance in Switzerland, which holds referendums every few months.

On Sunday, polls will open for just a few hours before closing at noon, with initial results expected by mid-afternoon.