Jura referendum: the story continues

Partidaris del "sí" a Moutier.
Partidaris del "sí" a Moutier. Author: Canton du Jura
Moutier is a town with little more than 7,500 inhabitants located on the border between two Swiss cantons —Bern and Jura. The latter, French-speaking, was separated from the former —mainly German-speaking— after a plebiscite was held in 1975. Moutier remained at the Bernese side of the border, even if its main language —such as Jura's— was French.This relates to a powerful correlation between votes and religious belonging: most Catholic-majority regions then voted to separate from mainly Protestant Bern, and form the new canton of Jura. On the contrary, areas with a Protestant majority, even if French-speaking, chose to remain in Bern. Confessionally-divided Moutier was also more or less evenly divided in terms of voting preferences: supporters of continued Bern membership won the vote, albeit by a very narrow margin. Tension was so high that hundreds of police officers and Jurassic independence partisans fought in the streets, a unusual scene in contemporary Switzerland.

42 years after that episode, a new chapter of the story has been written June 18, as Moutier has again voted in referendum on whether it should be included in Bern or in Jura. As it was the case in 1975, the vote has been very close. But this time, separation supporters have won the referendum (some 52% of the votes). As a consequence, the Jura-Bern border will be modified so that Moutier is separated from the latter to join the former.

The 2017 result confirms what Moutier's neighbours already voted in 2013. After the creation of the Jura canton in 1979, Jurassic independence proponents believed that it would be a matter of time that Protestant, French-speaking regions that had chosen to stay in Bern (the so-called Bernese Jura) would regret it, and eventually re-vote to join the Jura canton. Indeed, the Jurassic movement obtained in 2012 the commitment of the Bern canton to a new vote on whether the Bernese Jura should secede. The plebiscite was set for November 2013.

Contrary to what the Jurassic movement had expected, almost 72% of the Jura Bernese voters again chose to stay in Bern, confirming the fact the correlation between Bernesism and Protestantism remained stronger than the correlation between Jurassianism and Francophony.

Off course, the existence of such correlations does not necessarily mean that an immediate cause-effect relationship exists. In this respect, one should not forget about other factors that can weigh in votes, such as the relatively greater economic strength of the Bern canton, the geographical orientation of some parts of the Bernese Jura —more directed towards Bern than to the Jura canton— or, on the contrary, a certain sense of having become a periphery within Bern.

Indeed, the religious factor may have been less important for the 2013-2017 period than it was in 1975, secularization may have gained ground in society, and confessional arguments may have now been much more absent from public debate. Furthermore, linguistic identity may have weighted more now than a few decades ago. But some observers still think that, in the end of the day, the religious cleavage continues to guide many votes. Some even dare to calculate that 75% of Catholics are pro-Jura, while 75% of Protestants are pro-Bern.

In any case, the 2013 plebiscite was a nearly complete failure for the Jura unification camp, with a tiny lifeline for it in Moutier, which voted (55%) in favour of joining the Jura canton. Again, Moutier was the only municipality in the Bernese Jura with a large Catholic majority.

By 2021 horizon, border might change again

Moutier is expected to join the Jura canton on 1 January 2021, after a legislative process that will require yet another referendum —in this case among the citizens of Jura. Will this be the end point of the Jura question? Maybe not. Switzerland's peculiar system of internal self-determination could open the door to further border amendments. As regards the Jura question, since the 1970s, Switzerland and the canton of Bern have been recognizing each municipality's individual power to decide which canton should they belong to, which is to say that  border adjustments between cantons are admitted, and may vary following a local plebiscite. This is exactly what is now happening with Moutier, but it might not be the last case.

Moutier is Bernese Jura district's most populated municipality. That is why some nearby locations have close links with it, whether in economic, educational or administrative fields. Thus, the villages of Sorvilier (280 inhabitants) and Belprahon (308), which lie close to Moutier, are scheduled to vote on September 17 whether to separate from Bern and join Moutier in its way to the Jura canton.

The government of the canton of the Jura says the votes in Moutier, Sorvilier and Belprahon will bring the Jura question to an end. Perhaps not: some in the Jurassic movement believe that their 2017 Moutier victory has unlocked the Bernese padlock, and that in the long run, this will trigger the unification of all the Bernese Jura with the Jura canton.