Permanent eye on price moves voted by Swiss
Swiss President Fritz Honegger was clearly disgruntled. He publicly blamed what he called ''easily influenced'' women for a political sensation in a country more noted for solid predictability than campaign excitement.Skip to next paragraph
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To the astonishment of all, Switzerland - a bastion of the free-enterprise system - has just voted overwhelmingly for permanent price surveillance of powerful industries.
As the news filtered through on radio and television, listeners could not believe their ears. Why?
* This is the first time since 1949 (when the people voted for a return to full direct democracy after World War II, during which emergency powers had been given to the federal government) that a nationwide people's initiative - i.e., a referendum brought by a group of citizens after gathering at least 100,000 signatures - had been successful. Since 1891, when the initiative was introduced , only seven out of 75 have passed.
* The federal government was against the permanent price surveillance proposal and tried to kill it by bringing a counterreferendum on the same day, calling only for temporary price surveillance in times of crisis. Traditionally, when the government does such a thing, the people's initiative has no chance. Under such conditions, only one initiative has ever succeeded in the institution's 90-year history. That was back in 1920, when the people voted against setting up casinos.
No wonder Switzerland's President was put out. But why his dig at the women? Mr. Honegger actually looked, at least for a brief moment, as if he might regret women's getting the right to vote in 1971.
The initiative was launched by the country's women consumer organization, led by its determined president, Monica Weber, a member of the federal parliament. In true amateur style, with very little money against the full force of Switzerland's business lobbies and sharply divided political party support, the women fought a major campaign.
As Ms. Weber cried on victory night: ''I want to thank all those who fought on the front.''
Helped by rising consumer prices (a jump from 4 percent at the end of 1980 to a stubborn rate of around 6 percent this year), the women pushed their cause, according to President Honegger, ''influencing women,'' but apparently winning over a lot of men as well.
During the '70s, when Switzerland faced a tough inflation problem, a temporary ''Monsieur Prix'' (Mr. Price) was appointed to keep an eye on company pricing tactics. Psychologically it was a great success and inflation eased. The various men who filled the role of Monsieur Prix are among the most popular in Switzerland. The office was abolished when inflation dropped.
Switzerland, according to its liberal economic tradition, is one of the most ''cartelized'' in the world: Cartels are allowed as long as they do not seriously abuse their power. Proving abuse is very difficult.
The successful initiative now demands that, ''for the prevention of price abuses, the federal government must lay down regulations for the surveillance of prices for goods and services sold by powerful enterprises, especially cartel and cartel-like organizations.''
On the line, for example, are the banks, with their setting of mortgage rates , and oil companies, agreeing on benzene and heating oil prices.
The women consumers want a permanent ''Monsieur Prix.'' The President is not giving in easily, however. In a hot discussion on Swiss television, he informed Ms. Weber that she might get a group of faceless bureaucrats instead. A ''Monsieur Prix'' is not easily found, Mr. Honegger remarked .
Ms. Weber, Switzerland's feminine answer to Ralph Nader, shot back: ''We want a prestigious person in the job. We want quick action, and we do not want watered-down regulations.''
It seems that not all women are ''easily influenced,'' Mr. President. If a Mr. Price is hard to find, why not a Mme. Prix?