Members of the district election office Stadtkreis 3, wearing protective face masks, work during the day of a Swiss referendum on banning burqas and other facial coverings, in Zurich, Switzerland March 7, 2021. REUTERS
Swiss voters seemed on course Sunday to narrowly back a ban on full facial coverings in public places, with most referendum ballots counted.
With results in from 22 of federal Switzerland's 26 cantons, 54 percent of voters were in favour of outlawing the burqa and the niqab.
In parallel votes, a free trade deal with Indonesia seemed set to be narrowly accepted, with 53 percent support from results so far, while 62 percent had voted against a plan for a state-backed electronic identity scheme.
The so-called anti-burqa vote comes after years of debate in Switzerland following similar bans in other European countries -- and in some Muslim-majority states -- despite women in Islamic full-face veils being an exceptionally rare sight in Swiss streets.
Even though the proposal "Yes to a ban on full facial coverings" did not mention the burqa or the niqab -- which leaves only the eyes uncovered -- there was no doubt as to what the debate was about.
Campaign posters reading "Stop radical Islam!" and "Stop extremism!", featuring a woman in a black niqab, have been plastered around Swiss cities.
Rival posters read: "No to an absurd, useless and Islamophobic 'anti-burqa' law".
The ban would mean that nobody could cover their face completely in public -- whether in shops or the open countryside. But there would be exceptions, including for places of worship.
- Double majority needed-
A Yes vote risks "trivialising the xenophobic and racist atmosphere" towards Muslim women, Meriam Mastour, of the Purple Headscarves feminist group, told broadcaster RTS.
It is estimated that very few women wear the full veil in Switzerland, she stressed, and those that do tend to be converts and tourists.
A 2019 Federal Statistical Office survey found that 5.5 percent of the Swiss population were Muslims, mostly with roots in the former Yugoslavia.
"It's a huge relief," said Mohamed Hamdaoui, a regional lawmaker in the Bern canton and the founder of the "A Face Discovered" campaign.
He called the vote "the opportunity to say stop to Islamism" and not "to Muslims, who obviously have their place in this country".
Within Europe, Switzerland's neighbours France and Austria have banned full face coverings, as have Belgium, Bulgaria and Denmark.
Several other European countries have bans for particular contexts, such as in schools and universities.
The Swiss government and parliament opposed a nationwide ban.
Their counter-proposal -- automatically triggered if the initiative was rejected -- would require people to show their faces to the authorities if necessary for identification, such as at borders.
Under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, any topic can be put to a national vote as long as it gathers 100,000 signatures in the wealthy country of 8.6 million people.
Such referendum votes take place every three months.
A 2009 vote that banned the construction of minaret towers on mosques sparked anger abroad.
In order to pass, initiatives must receive support from a majority of voters nationwide, and from a majority of federal Switzerland's 26 cantons, six of which count as half-cantons in votes.
- Indonesia trade, e-ID votes-
Two other votes were held on Sunday.
One was on the free trade agreement struck between Switzerland and Indonesia.
Tariffs would be gradually removed from almost all of Switzerland's biggest exports to the world's fourth most populous country, while the Swiss would abolish duties on Indonesian industrial products.
Opponents to this measure are especially critical of Bern's move to reduce import duties on palm oil.
The other vote was on a government plan to introduce a federally recognised electronic identity that could be used for ordering goods and services online.
The idea is that the e-ID would be regulated by law, offering a degree of security and reliability when giving identity details on the internet. It could also be used to open a bank account or request an official document.
It was pushed to a popular vote by critics alarmed at the plan to rely on private firms for the IDs, giving them access to sensitive, private information.