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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zurich Vote Pushes Switzerland Into UN

GENEVA -- By a slender margin, neutral Switzerland decided in a countrywide vote Sunday to leave behind decades of isolationism and become a member of the United Nations.

The referendum passed by a surprisingly comfortable popular vote -- 54.6 percent for membership and 45.4 percent against -- but the outcome was in suspense for hours because the majority of the country's 23 full cantons, or states, also had to approve the initiative under Switzerland's system of direct democracy.

The balance finally swung to 12 cantons in favor and 11 against, when Zurich, the country's largest canton, lined up in the "yes" column. This tipped the balance, to the relief of the government, which had lobbied hard for Switzerland to shed its go-it-alone stance and become the 190th member of the global organization.

Switzerland is expected to formally submit an application for membership during the UN General Assembly session in September, becoming the last state except for the Vatican to join. This is the second time the Swiss have voted on membership. In 1986, during the Cold War, the Swiss overwhelmingly rejected joining, driven by fears that its traditional neutrality would be compromised.

Reflecting this year's hard-fought and emotional campaign, an unusually high number of voters, nearly 58 percent, turned out. Nationalists, led by the billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher, exhorted the Swiss to vote against joining the United Nations on grounds it would jeopardize the country's neutrality, independence and humanitarian traditions. A small country like Switzerland, with 7.3 million people, would also be subject to the decisions of the UN Security Council, which could include dragging Swiss soldiers into conflict situations, they argued.

The government, industry and trade unions mounted a vigorous effort to convince the Swiss that they need to participate in global affairs and not remain aloof in light of the changing international situation since the Sept. 11 attacks. The country already follows UN economic sanctions and provides limited, usually logistical, help in peacekeeping operations. Last June the voters agreed for the first time to allow Swiss soldiers who take part in such missions to be armed for self-defense.

Although the country is host to the UN European headquarters in Geneva and is active in a number of its agencies, the government feared that a continued reluctance to become a member would undercut Switzerland politically and economically and undermine its mediation efforts in far-flung conflicts.

It was also eager to burnish Switzerland's image, damaged by disclosures in recent years that Swiss banks hoarded Holocaust victims' accounts, that many refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were turned away at Swiss borders and that foreign dictators hid behind the country's banking secrecy to stash immense sums looted from poor countries.

Blocher, who leads the Swiss People's Party, appeared on Swiss television, saying the outcome would "lead to a weakening of Switzerland," and maintained, "With the United Nations vote today, we are no longer neutral." His right-wing party found support in smaller, German-speaking regions, which are traditionally fiercely independent and suspicious of the rest of the world.