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BERN, Switzerland — Who turns down a long vacation? Known for their work ethic, Swiss citizens appear to be leading the way on European austerity, rejecting a minimum six weeks paid holiday a year.
Switzerland counted ballots Sunday for five national referendums, including one pushed by a union to raise the minimum holiday up from four weeks, which is the standard used in Germany, Italy, Russia and other European nations. Some of the nation’s 26 cantons (states) also held voting on local measures to deal with everything from demonstrators to prostitutes.
The Swiss heeded warnings from government and business that more vacation would raise labor costs and put the economy at risk. Swiss public broadcaster SSR said two-thirds of voters and all of the cantons had rejected the measure, which required majority approval of all federal and cantonal voters.
“In rejecting the initiative, citizens have kept a sense of reality,” said Hans-Ulrich Bigler, director of the Swiss Union of Arts and Crafts, which represents around 300,000 businesses. The referendum, he said in a statement, could have added $6.52 billion a year in labor costs to the Swiss economy, but the vote “clearly shows that the population continues to focus on individual freedom and responsibility of citizens.”
But one initiative aimed at limiting the number of second homes in resort towns squeaked through with just more than 50 percent of the nationwide vote, according to SSR. The surprise success of the referendum, championed by 84-year-old journalist-turned-environmental activist Franz Weber and groups intent on keeping a lid on the use of natural resources and rising property prices, will be of particular interest to wealthy foreigners seeking a retreat in the Alpine nation.
Voters have decided that no more than a fifth of each community’s housing can be sold for second homes. Tourist areas that draw outside wealth — roughly the southern half of the nation dominated by the Swiss Alps — uniformly opposed setting such a limit. About 12 percent or a 500,000 homes nationwide are estimated to be used as getaways, rather than full-year abodes.
Environment Minister Doris Leuthard said many questions remain about how to implement it though the government shares a concern about people struggling to afford housing while the “occupancy rate of second homes” is too low in many areas.
By an overwhelming 87 percent federal vote and unanimous support among cantons, Switzerland agreed to change its constitution to require that all profits from Swiss lotteries and gambling pay for improvements in sports, culture, environment or social projects that benefit the public.
In Geneva, home to the European U.N. headquarters and frequent human rights demonstrations, voters passed tighter restrictions on demonstrations and steep fines of up to 100,000 francs ($110,000) on protesters who don’t get prior permission or adhere to rules. A U.N. official charged with upholding people’s right to gather peacefully had cautioned that the measure would “unduly restrict” free speech.
In Zurich, which has a flourishing red light district, the city narrowly voted to move prostitutes out of residential areas by building an area for them to work in with parking and garages. Prostitution is legal and regulated in Switzerland.
Though popular with young people, the referendum on vacation time tested how comfortable the Swiss feel about their traditional safe-haven economy. The nation has fared better than most others in debt-saddled Europe, where the financial sector and governments are being forced to cut spending and pay for expensive bailouts.
But there may have been too much of a good thing for Switzerland: As international traders leery of other nations’ financial stability poured money into the safety of Swiss money accounts, the franc jumped in value, putting a dent in Swiss exports and tourism.
The Swiss central bank moved in September to put a lid on the currency’s rise by setting a target exchange rate of 1.20 Swiss francs per euro, but the Swiss economy is still expected to slow this year, because of turmoil in the global economy and the eurozone’s debt crisis.
As much of Europe struggles to control debt through layoffs, wage cuts and tax increases, Swiss campaign group Travail.Suisse argued more break time was needed to help people cope with rising workplace stress because of the fast pace and increased competition.
Travail.Suisse collected 125,000 signatures two years ago to demand a vote on whether the vacation quota needed to be raised. It expressed disappointment at the result, but said it was proud it had raised the issue of workers’ anxiety. Many Swiss laws result from referendums.
Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said taking two more weeks of vacation is not the best way to fight stress and does not answer the question of “who will do the job of those who are on vacation.”
Employers also are wary of the doom and gloom — and more indulgent spending — found outside Swiss borders.
One TV ad run by Swiss employers before the voting depicted a neglected surgery patient who finds a Post-it note stuck on a medical monitor saying there was a staff shortage because of new vacation rules.
Posters could be seen in train stations, airports and public places warning that more vacation would mean fewer jobs.