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01 Jan 2002 00:00
Switzerland’s generosity and humanitarian tradition will be put to the test next Sunday when voters decide how to use billions of dollars rolling in from selling off part of the country’s huge gold reserves.
At issue is whether to put the interest earned on the money into the state AHV pension fund or to adopt a government-backed plan that would share funds among the AHV, Swiss cantons and a controversial humanitarian fund, the Solidarity Foundation.
Critics see the Foundation as the result of intense pressure on neutral Switzerland from foreigners, mainly Jewish groups, who alleged that it profited from World World Two and that its secretive banks stole Holocaust victims’ wealth.
Then-President Arnold Koller proposed the idea in March 1997 to counter charges of Swiss wartime profiteering.
By selling its excess gold reserves—by far the biggest in the world per capita—Switzerland could launch projects that improve the lot of needy people at home and abroad, he reasoned.
They could include “victims of poverty and catastrophes, of genocide and other serious human rights abuses, of course also for those of the Holocaust and Shoa,” he said at the time.
The government has since made clear that the foundation will not pay compensation to any individual Holocaust victims, but many Swiss still associate it with Jewish causes.
This has stiffened opposition to the plan, especially given that Swiss banks provided $1.25 billion to settle class-action lawuists accusing them of hoarding the riches of people killed in the Holocaust.
“This fund idea came from American circles in 1997 and was forced on to Switzerland because of its role in World War Two,” right-wing politician Christoph Blocher told Reuters in an interview. “Switzerland was blackmailed.”
Blocher is head of the hardline Zurich chapter of the populist Swiss People’s Party, which is leading the campaign to put all the money into the creaking state pension system.
A counter-proposal by the government and parliament is to divide the investment income on the proceeds of gold sales—perhaps a billion francs a year—equally among the AHV, regional governments and the controversial fund.
The central bank has been selling roughly a tonne of gold a day since May 2000, aiming to raise a total of about 19 billion Swiss francs through sales of just over half its 2,590 tonnes of gold reserves.
The state will keep the proceeds, but distribute investment returns on the cash pile over the next 30 years to whomever voters decide under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.
A survey last week by the GfS polling group found 50 percent of eligible voters questioned favoured the government’s counterproposal, while 39 percent backed the AHV-only option.
But under the complex Swiss polling system, a referendum vote also requires backing from a majority of the nation’s 26 cantons, which pollsters say currently hangs in the balance.
If neither proposal succeeds, the question will remain open until other ideas are put forward for a vote.
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