BERLIN — Swiss voters Sunday soundly rejected a proposal to limit the pay of companies’ highest-paid managers to 12 times that of their lowest-paid workers, a plan business leaders had warned could weaken the prosperous nation’s economy.
Voters shot down the plan in a referendum, 65.3 percent against to 34.7 percent for, and all 26 of the country’s cantons (states) voted against it. The measure needed a majority of both voters and cantons to pass.
Sunday’s referendum came after voters in March voiced anger at perceived corporate greed by deciding to boost shareholders’ say on executive pay and ban one-off bonuses known as “golden hellos” and “goodbyes.”
However, the new “1:12 initiative” from Switzerland’s Young Socialists calling for a fixed legal cap on pay appeared to be a step too far for centrist and conservative voters.
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Although opinion polls showed widespread dismay about huge executive paychecks, many Swiss were uncomfortable with a rigid, government-imposed salary cap.
Switzerland traditionally imposes light regulation on business compared with the rest of Europe, and relatively low income taxes. Partly as a result, the country is a popular base not only for banks and hedge funds, which have congregated in Geneva, but also major chemical, pharmaceutical and machinery companies.
The nation is home to such global business players as pharmaceutical companies Novartis and Roche; insurance groups Zurich and Swiss Re; and banks UBS and Credit Suisse.
Backers of the “1:12 initiative” said that imposing a legal limit on salaries would ensure greater fairness while still giving top bosses the chance to earn more money than, for example, government ministers.
But business leaders said it would weaken the nation’s competitiveness, make it harder to attract top talent and likely prompt some companies to move executives abroad.
Opponents included Sepp Blatter, the Swiss president of world soccer’s governing body FIFA, who said it would have the side effect of seriously damaging Swiss soccer.
The head of Switzerland’s employers’ association said he was greatly relieved.
“This is an important decision for Switzerland as a business location,” Valentin Vogt said. “The people have decided clearly that setting salaries in this country is not a matter for the state.”
An outright salary cap was considered too extreme for most voters, said Daniel Kübler, an associate professor of political science at Zurich University. “People have concerns about the way modern capitalism works, but they still prefer a free-market economy,” he said.
Parliament voted not to recommend the measure, as did the Federal Council, the eight-member panel that governs the country. The council said it sympathized with the sentiments behind the initiative but feared it would drive away business and be difficult to enforce.
“Of course we’re disappointed,” Young Socialist leader David Roth told Swiss television. “Our opponents succeeded in making people afraid,” he added, though he insisted that there was “no future” for an “economic system based on salaries in the millions, on financial speculation.”
Other supporters of the initiative said that despite the measure’s defeat, they had succeeded in raising public awareness.
“In the future, CEOs and boards of directors are going to have to think very carefully about how they justify multimillion-franc compensation,” said the Swiss Social Democratic Party, which had supported the initiative.
Although the referendum was defeated, voter dismay at the behavior of some Swiss corporations and executives is widespread. Proponents of the initiative complained that companies like the Swiss banking giant UBS, which received a government bailout because of the financial crisis, continued to pay huge executive bonuses even when they performed poorly.
Many Swiss also were offended by high-profile cases such as that of Daniel Vasella, the former chief executive of Novartis, who this year demanded a $78 million severance package in return for a promise not to share his know-how with any competitors. In the face of a public outcry, Vasella withdrew the demand and has since retired.
The image of Swiss business also suffered after the August suicide of Zurich Insurance finance chief Pierre Wauthier, who left a note complaining of intense pressure to perform from the company’s chairman, Josef Ackermann. The Swiss authorities later determined that Ackermann, the former chief executive of Deutsche Bank, had not done anything inappropriate, but the episode fed perceptions of business leaders’ pursuing profit at any cost.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.