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Swiss vote narrowly to join U.N.

A Swiss woman casts her vote in a suburb of Geneva  

GENEVA, Switzerland -- Swiss voters have narrowly approved joining the United Nations in Sunday's referendum after five decades of sitting on the sidelines.

Tallies from all precincts showed a nationwide margin of 55-45 percent in favour, but the crucial second hurdle -- approval by at least half the country's cantons, or states -- received a much narrower 12-11 result.

Nationwide 1,484,818 people backed the government by voting "yes," compared with 1,236,067 against.

The division between cantons held at 11-11 for two hours until Zurich, the largest canton, weighed in on the side of the U.N. supporters, and ensuring their historic victory.

CNN's Robin Oakley reported that ministers were relieved by the result because they had had little concrete to offer the people as a result of joining up.

Said Foreign Minister Joseph Diess: "The difficulty was to explain how Switzerland can be a full member of the U.N. without losing any of its central elements, either sovereignty, either neutrality or even its independence in general.

"It's not something which affects everyone in his daily life. But if we can do something to help people live better all over the world we will be better off also in Switzerland."

The Swiss Business Federation declared itself "very happy" with the result.

Fifteen years since the last referendum on the issue, the Swiss narrowly vote to join the United Nations. CNN's Robin Oakley reports (March 3)

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"I think we will sit finally at the table at the U.N. and be able fully to participate in the strategic decisions which the U.N. is taking -- that goes for all areas from sanctions to international law where the business community should have a voice," said Rudolf Rumsauer of Economie Suisse.

Activists in the referendum were working right up to Sunday's close of polling seeking to sway the undecided.

Impassioned appeals from nationalists had fuelled opposition to the government-backed referendum to join 189 countries in the world body.

Switzerland has long been a fee-paying member of some U.N. specialized agencies like the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.

But it had remained -- with the Vatican -- an observer state in the U.N. General Assembly.

Seventy-five percent of Swiss rejected U.N. membership in a similar referendum in 1986, backing opponents who said that membership would let East-West polarisation compromise Swiss neutrality.

But the government argued that the political climate had changed since the height of the Cold War, and that it is time for the 7 million Swiss to play a full role in the world.

Opponents claimed U.N. membership would force Switzerland to abandon its cherished sovereignty and submit to the political dictates of the five permanent members of the Security Council, such as the imposition of sanctions on countries like Iraq.

Under the Swiss constitution, membership needed a double approval -- not only a majority of those voting nationwide and but also a majority in at least 12 of the country's 23 cantons or states.

The first four cantons to report -- all of them smaller -- were all against U.N. membership, but then larger cantons such as Geneva started coming in with strong support.

The cantonal provision is a part of system that gives voters -- even in the small, independent-minded mountain cantons -- a strong control over major national decisions.

The nationalists plastered the country with posters claiming that U.N. membership would mean wasting millions of dollars a year for nothing.

The government says membership should cost $42 million a year, compared with the $1.8 billion a year economic windfall from the presence of U.N. European headquarters in Geneva.

Switzerland already provides logistical help to peacekeeping operations and invariably follows U.N. sanctions.

Oakley said that a key question now is whether reformers will be back on the streets with another campaign, to get the Swiss to join the European Union, an idea they rejected last year. But that divides even those who campaigned for a "yes" on the United Nations.

"The real point is when do we join and when do we relaunch the debate on European integration and the Yes side, the majority of the Yes side will say now we really stay quiet, don't go with Europe yet," said Andreas Gross of the "Yes" campaign.

"I will be one of those who says Europe is now making a convention on the constitution, it is a great shame we are not there," he said.

CNN's European Political Correspondent Robin Oakley contributed to this report


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