* Just 25 pct against
* Novartis cut CEO pay by 16 percent in 2012
* Investors vocal against pay at big banks, Novartis
* Vote splits SVP, Blocher family
ZURICH, Jan 25 (Reuters) - A majority of Swiss voters is set to approve a referendum giving shareholders power to curb executive rewards, according to an opinion poll conducted mid-January.
Roughly 65 percent of voters support the March 3 referendum that would give investors a binding vote on compensation and ban practices like golden handshakes for new hires and golden parachutes for departing managers, opinion research institute Gfs Bern said in a statement on Friday.
Roughly 25 percent would oppose the move, while 10 percent didn’t respond, Gfs said. No referendum in Swiss history has ever garnered as much support in polls, the institute said.
Novartis disclosed on Wednesday Chief Executive Joe Jimenez’s pay by 16 percent last year, a move widely seen as a concession to appease supporters of pay curbs.
The Basel-based drugmaker, which paid Chairman and former CEO Daniel Vasella $20 million in 2006, has long been a lightning rod on pay and corporate governance.
Popular sentiment against executive pay still runs high more than four years after the near-collapse of Swiss banking giant UBS, which was blamed on a lavish bonus culture for top traders and executives.
Credit Suisse boss Brady Dougan sparked a public outcry when he in 2010 was paid roughly 90 million Swiss francs ($97.49 million) under 2004 and 2009 pay and stock-linked bonus plans.
Switzerland’s business lobby argued strenuously ahead of the March vote that the referendum would drive away investment and cause an exodus of talent if approved.
However, the Gfs survey shows money alone won’t determine the outcome of the referendum, which billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) opposes.
The referendum has split both the SVP, which is set to determine its stance on the referendum this weekend, as well as Blocher’s own family: Blocher’s son-in-law, the spouse of Ems Chemie boss Magdalena Martullo-Blocher, has made headlines in recent weeks for campaigning in favor of the initiative.
Many of the biggest Swiss companies already offer investors a say on pay, though these have not been binding, as the referendum would be.
Last year, UBS’s investors supported its pay practices by a thin margin of 60 percent and knocked down another board proposal, while Credit Suisse won only 31.6 percent of investors for its pay scheme. The votes illustrate that popular ire persists long after UBS righted itself and returned to profits.
The pay referendum was long campaigned for by businessman-turned-politician Thomas Minder, who was first outraged by payoffs for managers at failed airline Swissair in 2001. It is symptomatic of a global backlash against corporate excess since the financial crisis struck five years ago.
Even if Swiss voters reject Minder’s initiative, other legislation already adopted in parliament will come into force - though its effect is less sweeping than Minder’s law. ($1 = 0.9232 Swiss francs) (Reporting By Katharina Bart; editing by Ron Askew)