The Jura Conflict: Direct Democracy in Practice

On 18 June 2017 the citizens of Moutier, a small town in the heart of the Jura region in Switzerland, decide on the future of their city, whether to remain in the Canton of Berne or to leave and join the Canton of Jura. The referendum vote is above all about identity and therefore highly emotional. It is an episode in the centuries-old Jura conflict that divides the people of the region, and part of a strategy that was devised to deal with this conflict in a democratic way and without violence.

The Jura conflict provides a useful example for studying the impact of direct democracy in a conflictual established-outsiders relationship. It shows how direct democracy has worked in practice. In the course of the Jura conflict direct democracy turned out to be an indispensable tool of conflict regulation, and indeed conflict resolution, which is still underway. In describing the events emphasis is placed on the role played by direct democracy, its functions and effects in practice. The Jura conflict shows that there is a democratic alternative to (ethnic) nationalism and civil war, that the relentless pursuit of dialogue and decision-making by the people can prevent a spiral of violence in the struggles between minorities and majorities which differ politically and culturally from each other. Whatever the ultimate solution will be, it has to pass the test of a democratic decision at the ballot box by all the citizens concerned.

What is and has been happening in the Jura is not only a regional affair, but of far greater interest for the countless autonomist and separatist movements in Europe and worldwide. This explains why for example Catalonia takes an active interest in the Jura conflict and the use of direct democracy and federalism for the regulation and resolution of this conflict.

The Jura conflict began after the Jura was given to the Canton of Berne at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Two parts were joined that did not match. The conservative, French-speaking Catholic Jura, once an autonomous political entity, became a minority within the liberal, German-speaking Protestant Canton of Berne. During the course of a rather long prelude, the Jura-Berne conflict mostly simmered beneath the surface and did not spread beyond the region. A few short-lived protest movements occurred, but they were unable to mobilise sufficient support because other conflicts took precedence. It was only after the Second World War that the separatist movement in the Jura became a serious problem for the Canton of Berne, and ultimately for the whole of Switzerland. The governments of Berne proved unable and unwilling to integrate the minority Jura population into the canton, and finally separation was the only remaining solution. A new Canton of Jura, composed of the three northern districts, was split off from the Canton of Berne. In a way this marked the end of the Jura Question – but not of the Jura conflict. Separation created a fundamentally new reality and transformed the Jura conflict into the “Inter-Jurassic Question” (Hauser 2005) – an attempt to find a political solution to the Jura conflict by way of an institutionalized dialogue between the different actors and interests in the Jura region.

The Jura conflict is a typical minority-majority conflict of 20th-century and present-day Europe, but in the case of the Jura, the descent into violence was avoided, not least thanks to direct democracy (and federalism). The creation of the Canton of Jura is thus also a victory for a model of social integration through the sharing of power, a model which has a long and successful pedigree in Switzerland. It shows that there is a democratic alternative to (ethnic) nationalism, which has proven itself incapable of solving the relationship problems with minorities.

In the course of the Jura conflict direct democracy turned out to be an indispensable tool of conflict regulation, and indeed conflict resolution, which is still underway. Whatever the solution of the Jura Question will be, the last word will be said by the voters. In the following, emphasis will be placed on the role played by direct democracy, on its functions and effects in practice.

The Jura Conflict: Chronology (1815-2017) (click to open)

The Jura Conflict: Results of the Popular Votes (click to open)


The time between 1815 and 1947 can be considered as the prelude to the Jura-Berne conflict, during which a Jurassic minority identity and consciousness was created and the ground was prepared on which the coming conflict would take place (Bassand 1975, Junker 1996). Direct democracy played no part in this gestational period. Of course, the ups and downs of the Jura conflict were always embedded in a broader, national and European, even global context and related to larger-scale developments and conflicts (conflict between liberals and conservatives, between Catholics and Protestants, tensions between Francophile and Germanophile Switzerland, nationalism and national defence, decolonization, “1968”, socio-economic development and globalization; see Claude Hauser 2004).

Act 1: The unresolvable Jura-Berne conflict

The first act is about a struggle between David and Goliath, between the separatist movement (organized by the Rassemblement jurassien, RJ) and the state of Berne and the pro-Berne loyalists (organized in the Union des patriotes jurassien) as the main actors. There was also a third actor (organized in the Comité de Moutier) that demanded more autonomy for the Jura while remaining under the authority of Berne, but not full independence.

I call the conflict unresolvable insofar and as long as it represented a conflict between two incompatible world views and political projects. The Bernese government/state regarded the population of the canton as forming one democratic People (a demos) speaking two languages, whereas the RJ/separatists saw two distinct ethnic Peoples or nations, one dominating the other and denying it the right to national self-determination. What was at stake was the creation of a particular Jurassic identity and a “Jurassic People” with its own state. Questions of identity are where passion comes into politics, and the struggle between the separatist and anti-separatist movements is a showcase for this- for the role passion plays in politics, how it is organised, mobilised, used, how the passion for identity is associated with the passion for justice and also with the passion of fear.

There are different ways to deal with a conflict between uncompromising and irreconcilable forces for which there is no rational solution (Mouffe 2010). There is always a great danger that such a conflict descends into violence. The opponent becomes an enemy that must be destroyed. Although incidents of violence occurred, neither Berne nor the separatists were ready to cut the Gordian Knot by the sword. Repression of the opponent by authoritarian means or by using state power is another possibility; Berne tried this initially, but without much success. A third possibility is to impose your own solution on the others; this was the way chosen and strictly applied by the RJ. On the other side, Berne tried to do the same. A fourth possibility is to try to find a consensus; obviously this is impossible in the case of an antagonistic conflict, but it was what the moderate autonomists tried to do. A last possibility is to accept that the conflict is not amenable to consensus and that there is no way of rationally resolving it. This leads to conflict regulation instead of conflict resolution, giving conflicting demands and grievances political forms of expression within the limits of a democratic constitution. For this to happen appropriate institutions and instruments are necessary. Direct democracy provided the minorities in Berne with means for expressing their concerns/demands politically, thereby reducing the need for violence and making it less likely to occur. In other words, direct democracy functions also as a kind of safety valve.

At the outset separatism was considered a completely unacceptable position, unpatriotic and contrary to the Swiss national consensus and “spirit”. Separatism was belittled, marginalized, stigmatized and given no place in official politics. Berne rejected a federalisation of the canton and only made some minor concessions to the demands for more autonomy. These included constitutional recognition of the separate identity of the people of the Jura. The constitutional amendments were approved in an obligatory cantonal referendum in 1950. This was as far as the state of Berne was prepared to go. It was definitely not far enough even for the moderate Jurassic forces. Between Berne’s rigidity and the separatist intransigence there was no room left for a middle position and the Comité de Moutier dissolved itself in 1952, leaving behind an increasingly polarised battlefield.

Separatists played with the idea of directly creating a new canton by changing articles 1 and 5 of the federal constitution by means of a national popular initiative. For many reasons this idea was unrealistic. So, in September 1957, the Rassemblement Jurassien (RJ) launched a cantonal initiative to ascertain what the people of the Jura thought about the idea of creating a separate Canton of Jura.

The initiative proposal asked: “Do you want the Jura to be given the status of a sovereign Canton of the Confederation?”

The initiative process (1957-59) allowed the separatists to move their campaign onto the political stage and force the media to report it and comment on it. It was also a means of compensating for underrepresentation. The separatists and their political platform could no longer be ignored or sidelined. The numerous media reports dealing with the background of the movement focused a great deal of public attention on the RJ, and its existence as a significant player in the Jura Question had to be acknowledged (“The movement is strong and widespread”, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 15.7.1957). Campaigning for the initiative was also a process that made the separatist movement stronger.

When the initiative was finally put to the vote in July 1959, it was approved by a clear majority only in the three French-speaking, Catholic districts of the North Jura, whereas the three French-speaking, but majority Protestant, districts of the South Jura and the German-speaking, Catholic Laufon remained loyal to Berne. Much more significant than the expected disapproval of the initiative by a majority of all the votes was that a majority of the Jurassic voters also said “no” to the creation of a Canton of Jura. After this verdict the newspaper headlines declared the death of separatism: “The RJ dream is over!” (Basler Nachrichten, 6.7.1959); “Separatism condemned to die” (Tagwacht, 6.7.1959).

Separation and the creation of a new state

After the defeat at the ballot box the separatist movement entered a short period of weakness and distress. But instead of giving in, the separatists changed their tactics and modified their arguments, emphasizing ethnic origin and the French language as defining features of the Jurassic identity. This ethno-nationalist twist bore the imprint of Roland Béguelin, the charismatic leader of the RJ.[1] It remained disputed even within the separatist movement and provoked harsh reactions from the Bernese side and beyond. The fear was expressed publicly that the separatists’ nationalism would undermine the idea of Switzerland as a nation based not on a common ethnicity or language, but forged out of an active political will to unite despite differences (the so-called “Willensnation Schweiz”).

In 1960 the RJ launched four cantonal popular initiatives, three of which made it to the ballot box and were defeated (voted on 27.05.1962). At a time of radicalization and polarization votes on issues proposed by the RJ tended to become votes for and against separatism.

In the 1960s Switzerland changed and the RJ with it, but the government of Berne and official politics lagged behind. Switzerland’s national self-understanding was deeply challenged, not least by ideas and well-advertised public actions of the separatist movement which succeeded in transforming the Jura-Berne conflict from a regional issue to a national one. Nevertheless, the fact is that the separatist movement never campaigned for secession from Switzerland, but only for separation from the Canton of Berne.

Under constant pressure from separatism and afraid of losing control, the Bernese government reconsidered its position and devised a plan for solving the Jura Question [2]. The first step was to create the legal basis for such a move. The cantonal parliament of Berne drew up a supplementary article to the Bernese cantonal constitution which provided for a one-off direct-democratic separation process. The amendment to the constitution was accepted by obligatory referendum on 1 March 1970, paving the way for self-determination for the Jura.

The actual separation procedure was designed to separate from Berne only those parts of the Jura that had a separatist majority; it would proceed in three steps:

Step 1: The Bernese government or 5,000 eligible Jurassic voters had the right to ask the people of the Jura to vote on the question of separation. The question put before the voters was defined in the constitution as follows: “Do you wish to form a new canton?”.

Step 2: In those districts where the majority had voted for (against) separation while the majority in the whole Jura had voted against (for) it, 5,000 eligible voters had the right to demand a popular vote asking whether the district should form a new Canton of Jura (or remain with the Canton of Berne). In other words, in disapproving districts it was possible, by way of a citizen-initiated referendum, to reverse the decision that had been made at the regional level.

Step 3: At the local level step 2 was repeated, giving border municipalities the possibility to change canton by means of a citizen-initiated referendum. One-fifth of the local electorate had the right to initiate the procedure.

The RJ under Béguelin called the separation process a “dictate”. It fundamentally disagreed with Berne about unity and the right to vote. It declared that it would never accept a breakup of the Jura. It demanded that only the native Jurassic citizens (regardless of their place of residence) should have the right to vote on independence. However, in the constitution the right to vote was based on the place of residence (not origin), defining the people of the Jura, with their right to self-determination, not as an ethnic community or “ethnos”, as the separatists had claimed, but as citizens of a state society, or “demos”.

On 18 December 1973 the Bernese government took the initiative and set the voting day for 23 June 1974. [3] The expectation was that, as in 1959, a majority would vote against the creation of a new Canton of Jura. It therefore came as a big surprise that the separatists won the vote with 36,802 votes in favour to 34,057 against, on a turnout of 88.7%. (Step1) All attempts at stopping the separation process at this stage, in order to preserve the unity of the Jura, were in vain. [4]

The separatists hesitated before entering the ballot campaign, but once they decided to do so, they switched from provocation-confrontation to a factual argumentation which tackled economic issues head-on. They did this to win over undecided voters and the tactic worked.

In line with the constitutional process, citizen-initiated referendums in favour of remaining in the Canton of Berne were now organised in the districts of South Jura (16.03.1975) and in Laufon (14.09.1975), all of which had voted against the creation of a new canton. The results of the popular votes were as expected: the South Jura districts of Courtelary, Moutier and La Neuveville voted for Berne and so did Laufon. The districts that had voted for separation did not have the option of reversing their choice. (Step 2)

The campaigning for the second round developed a lot more heat and could not qualify as free and fair: “(…) the supporters of the Canton of Jura were systematically hindered, in the South Jura, from exercising their rights of citizenship: they could not express their ideas any more, they were denied meeting places – and all this with the backing of the Bernese government” (Schwander, quoted in Philippe 2008, 173). Berne was secretly financing anti-separatist organizations and voting campaigns in the South Jura and Laufon. Such an exercise of “invisible power” undermines the very foundation of democracy (see Bobbio 1987, 23-42). It was revealed years later (the “caisses noires (black cashboxes) affair”). While the Federal Court accepted a complaint by a group of people in Laufon, it rejected the complaint by the Canton of Jura. [5]

After votes at the district level, citizen-initiated referendums followed in 13 municipalities along the new cantonal border: 5 majority Protestant districts voted to remain with Berne and 8 majority Catholic districts opted for the Jura. (Step 3)

The Jura was now officially split. Voters in the new canton approved a new constitution (obligatory referendum on 20 March 1977). After that it was the turn of voters throughout Switzerland to cast their votes; all the cantons and a large majority of Swiss voters approved the accession of the new canton to the Confederation (obligatory referendum on 24 September 1978).

Act 2: In search of a political solution

The foundation of the new state represented a significant victory for the much-maligned separatist movement. It marked the end of the Jura Question as an unresolvable political conflict between the separatists and the anti-separatists/the state of Berne. A fundamentally new context and institutional setup had been created, splitting the seven districts of the historic Jura into three different cantons.

The former district of Laufon went its own way and finally, after a long series of popular votes, joined the Canton of Basle Country. The whole process of changing canton took almost twenty years and the degree of citizen involvement was extremely high, with turnouts of up to 93%. Once the decision -process had come to an end, implementation (integration into Basle Country) run smoothly and without major problems.

The creation of the Canton of Jura did not solve the Jura conflict, but it transformed it and opened the space for a future political solution based on dialogue and cooperation between the opposing forces and interests in the Jura region. After a rather hot interlude and period of reorientation, such a dialogue was institutionalized in 1994. At the heart of it is the Inter-Jurassic Assembly which published its “Final report on the institutional future of the inter-jurassic region” on 4 May 2009 ( The report evaluates two ways of definitely solving the Jura conflict. One is a two-state solution (called Status quo +), which is preferred by the Canton of Berne. The other is a one-state solution, that is, reunification of the Jura by way of creating a new canton comprising the six Jura districts. This solution follows the line drawn by an independent mediating body in 1993 (see Widmer report) and ten years later by the popular initiative “Un seul Jura”; obviously this would be the solution preferred by the separatist movement and the Canton of Jura. Other options exist and are also discussed, such as the foundation of a “Super Jura” consisting of the Canton of Jura, the Bernese Jura and the Canton of Neuchâtel. Of course, it is also thinkable that, as the years go by and society moves far away from where it is today, the Jura conflict will become irrelevant and fade away.

Direct democracy continues to play a role also in the ongoing second act of the Jura conflict. Popular initiatives are used by the separatist movement in their struggle for reunification, at the cantonal level in the North Jura (the cantonal popular initiative “UNIR” in 1989 and “Un seul Jura” in 2003) and at the municipal level in the South Jura (a possibly premature popular consultation in Moutier about changing canton in 1998). In 2009, in its final report, the Interjurassic Assembly presents possible solutions for the Jura conflict based on direct democracy. In 2012 the governments of the Cantons of Berne and Jura signed a memory of understanding to deteremine the form of direct-democratic procedures that are to be applied for deciding the institutional future of the Jura. On 24 November 2013 the citizens of the Canton of Jura and the Bernese Jura voted on the proposal to launch a process aiming at creating a new canton to unite the Jura. The proposal was accepted by the voters in the Canton of Jura, but clearly rejected in the Bernese Jura – with the exception of Moutier (55% “Yes”-votes). According to the procedures accepted by both cantons, municipalities of the Bernese Jura still have the option to call a referendum on joining the Canton of Jura. Moutier has chosen this option and the popular vote takes place on 18 June 2017. Two municipalities have linked their fate to the one of Moutier. Sorvilier (268 inhabitants) will vote on joining the Canton of Jura, whereas Belprahon (300 inhabitants) will vote only in case Moutier decided to join the Canton of Jura. The municipalities of Crémines and Grandval have also opted for a referendum but it is still open whether they will renounce it or not. It is hoped that with these popular decisions the Jura conflict is finally coming to a close.

Update: Moutier decided to join the Canton of Jura (click to see the result, opens in a separate window). A lengthy and complex procedure will follow:
Two other Bernese municipalities – Belprahon and Sorvilier – could also choose to join the Jura. After the popular votes in these municipalities the cantons of Berne and Jura will have to negotiate an intercantonal concordat that regulates the details of the transfer of sovereignty. This text will be submitted to the cantonal parliaments of Berne and Jura in the second half of 2018. The citizens of the two cantons will then be called to the ballot box to ratify the agreement. If ratification is rejected in Berne or in the Jura, Moutier and the other municipalities will remain in Berne. In the event of a double yes, the file will be forwarded to the Federal Assembly, which will formulate a decree on territorial modification. Finally a referendum will be held in the Canton of Jura, in order to validate the modifications of the constitution resulting from the transfer of Moutier and the other municipalities. In the end, the territorial amendment would come into force on 1 January 2021, after general elections in the enlarged Canton of Jura by the end of 2020.
(Source: RTS-INFO


[1] The biography of Roland Béguelin by Vincent Philippe (2004) gives a detailed account of the most outstanding protagonist of the separatist struggle and provides valuable information about the separatist movement and its view of the conflict. Emma Chatelain (2007) gives insight into the anti-separatist movement and its relations with the state of Berne.

[2] The plan was masterminded by André Ory and later adopted by the federal commission that had been appointed by the national government as a mediating body. André Ory was the director of the cantonal office for public relations (“Kantonales Amt für die Beziehungen zur Öffentlichkeit”) and responsible for the Jura Question on behalf of the Canton of Berne. He was a formidable opponent of the separatist leader Roland Béguelin.

[3] This is in line with a plebiscite, not with direct democracy.

[4] In the view of Ruch (2001), this was the crucial “birth defect” of the Canton of Jura and went beyond what was normally acceptable in a democracy; responsibility for this fundamental mistake is borne by the Federal Council, which could have stopped the process.

[5] The referendum on whether Laufon would switch to the Canton of Basle-Country or remain under the authority of the Canton of Berne had to be repeated. Laufon finally decided to join the Canton of Basle Country. The Federal Court argued that the Canton of Jura was not entitled to act as a plaintiff in this case because it had not existed when the referendums took place in 1975.
The Jura Conflict: Chronology (1815-2017) (click to open)

The Jura Conflict: Results of the Popular Votes (click to open)

Dick Marty (président de l’Assemblée interjurassienne) “On ne peut pas comprendre la Question jurassienne sans se référer à l’histoire” (click  to open)


Absichtserklärung zur Durchführung der Volksabstimmungen über die institutionelle Zukunft der interjurassischen Region im Kanton Jura und im Berner Jura (

Bassand, Michel (1975): The Jura Problem. In: Journal of Peace Research, 12(2), pp. 139-150.

Bobbio, Norberto (1987):. The Future of Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Chatelain, Emma (2007): « Nous sommes des hommes libres sur une terre libre ». Le mouvement antiséparatiste jurassien (1947-1975), son idéologie et ses relations avec Berne. Neuchâtel: Éditions Alphil.

Hauser, Claude (1997): Aux origines intellectuelles de la Question jurassienne. Culture et politique entre la France et la Suisse romande (1910-1950). Courrendlin.

Hauser, Claude (2004): L’aventure du Jura. Cultures politiques et identité régionale au XXe siècle. Lausanne.

Hauser, Claude (2005): Award speech: “Regards sur l’histoire jurassienne au XXe siècle: des identités en marche”.

Junker, Beat (1996): Geschichte des Kantons Bern seit 1798, Band III. Historischer Verein des Kantons Bern (ed.).

Mouffe, Chantal (2010): From antagonistic politics to an agonistic public space.

Philippe, Vincent (2008): Roland Béguelin, la plume-epée. Vevey: Editions de l’Aire.

Rapport final de l’AIJ (

Ruch, Christian (2001): Struktur und Strukturwandel des jurassischen Separatismus zwischen 1974 und 1994. Bern: Haupt.

Widmer report: Rapport de la commission consultative du Conseil fédéral et des cantons de Berne et du Jura. 31 mars 1993. Available on (Rapport Widmer)

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