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Moutier: the Swiss conflict that has been ongoing for more than 200 years

Jura residents demonstrate in Moutier for their town to leave canton Bern and join canton Jura. But what will be the outcome of the March 28 vote? © Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

On Sunday the western Swiss town of Moutier will vote for the second time on whether to leave German-speaking canton Bern and join French-speaking canton Jura. This is part of an ongoing conflict that is typically Swiss.

This content was published on March 26, 2021 - 00:30
Andreas Gross, St. Ursanne

In 1815 the Congress of Vienna divided Napoleons’ war gain between Russia, the United Kingdom, Austria and Prussia. Lombardy and Venice came back under the Habsburgs’ control; Denmark lost Norway to Sweden. In Switzerland, the Jura, a region that formerly belonged to the old diocese of Basel, was handed over to the canton of Bern – partly as compensation for the fact that Bern would not recover its former territories of Vaud and Aargau after they were liberated from Napoleon.

Swapping territories was the rule then. Empire, not states ruled over Europe. The wars that took place routinely over centuries between shifting constellations of imperial alliances often raised questions about the allegiances of individual peoples. Populations were just part of the spoils of war.

Federalism as a stroke of luck

When they were handed over to Bern, the population of the Jura was not given a say in the matter.  As early as the 1830s, they saw their subjugation to Bern as a misfortune. The silver lining was that Bern would soon (in 1848) become a canton in a federal nation state: Switzerland. It was the only European country to successfully establish a stable democracy after a wave of revolutions shook Europe in 1848.

The Swiss Confederation prided itself on federalism; its cantons saw themselves as autonomous associations of more or less autonomous municipalities. The cantons in turn united to form the first European federation in which they claimed the title of “state” and the autonomy that implies. The Catalonians, Scots and Hungarian-speaking Transylvanians in Romania did not have such luck.

The first step towards autonomy of the Jura region achieved in 1950 was decisive. The government of canton Bern took up a demand from the “Moutier Committee for the Protection of the Rights of the Jura”, formed in 1947, and crafted an amendment to the canton’s constitution.

In October 1950, a majority of the Bern Parliament approved the amendment to the canton’s constitution. That legitimised the people of the Jura region’s demands for a certain amount of autonomy.

Bern was not merely acquainted with the idea of autonomy; the canton of Bern was also a pioneer of direct democracy. In Bern, as in all cantons, citizens could propose changes to the constitution.

Laying the groundwork for partition

The separatist Rassemblement Jurassien (RJ), or Jura Assembly, the successor organisation of the Moutier committee, made use of this democratic right. In 1957, it launched a cantonal people’s initiative on the question of whether the people of Jura should establish their own canton.

A clear majority of the whole canton of Bern said no. Four out of the seven Jura districts narrowly rejected the creation of their own canton. The three northern, majority catholic Jura districts voted clearly in favour.

The Jura region was confronted with its own political division, or to be more exact, with its own diversity. That division was confirmed in all the Jura referendums from 1957 to 2013: not all the population wanted to break away from Bern.

Nonetheless, the Jura separatists persisted. A range of political activities – including civil disobedience, even vandalism – prompted the Bern government to develop a plan “to solve the Jura question”. This plan was characterised by the democratic traditions of Bern and Switzerland including talks, negotiations and direct democracy votes.

Its price, which was clear to most from the start, was the internal partition of the Jura region. In spring 1970, the plan was accepted by a clear majority of the Bernese. It envisaged the famous cascade of referendums at district and communal levels which then led to the creation and borders of the new canton in 1978.

The Moutier turning point

This brings the story to Moutier, an old monastery town and the most important municipality of the southern Jura.  The separatists narrowly lost in 1974, meaning the town remained tied to Bern. But in the 1980s, the balance of power shifted. Those advocating membership of canton Jura have since then always had a small majority in the local assembly and the local council.  

In 2013, Moutier signalled a change of mind. It voted in favour of an end to the partition of the Jura region and for the redefinition a big, new canton of Jura. In a municipal referendum in November 2017, 51.7 % of the Moutier electorate voted in favour of joining the canton of Jura. Moutier would have become the second-biggest town in the canton. But this referendum was declared invalid by the Bernese authorities one year later. This was partly because it was proven that a handful of people had falsely claimed residency and had cast votes. Moutier is now voting on March 28 for the ninth time in 71 years on the question of whether it wants to belong to the canton of Jura or not.

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