Right to vote: “The foreign community is too big to be ignored”


Posters against facilitated naturalization at Zurich main station, 2017. © Keystone / Alessandro Della Valle

One in three Swiss residents is not allowed to participate in national elections and votes. In most cases, it is because they do not have Swiss nationality. How does it feel to live in the country that organizes the most referendums in the world without being able to vote?

This content was published on November 13, 2021 – 10:00

“I have lived in several countries, but my experience in Switzerland is the first time that I am directly confronted with a situation where other inhabitants make decisions concerning my life and my well-being”, explains Estefania Cuero, who has an Ecuadorian and a German passport and has been living in Switzerland for four years. “It’s very new to me – and sometimes, very unpleasant.”

Cuero, diversity consultant and doctoral student at the University of Lucerne, says specific issues are at the root of this sentiment. “The vote on the ban on the burqa [passed in March by 51.2% of voters] really touched me. I didn’t feel welcome – even though I don’t wear a niqab and am not a Muslim. But to me, the message behind it was: “We don’t want to see anyone here who looks foreign.”

The aim of direct democracy is to involve the population in political decision-making. But regular referendums and popular initiatives repeatedly reveal who does not belong to the electorate.

Of the approximately 8.7 million inhabitants of Switzerland, around 35% are not allowed to vote at national level.

“You often hear ‘Switzerland has voted’ or ‘Switzerland has decided’, says Cuero. “But if 35% are not allowed to vote, then such a statement is problematic, maybe even false. It is not Switzerland but very specific individuals or a group that can decide for others and therefore exerts power over other groups that belong to Switzerland.

Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch

The largest group of people excluded from decisions on national matters are foreigners. Switzerland takes the same approach as almost all other countries in this regard. Only four countries in the world allow non-citizens to vote at the national level: Chile, Uruguay, New Zealand and Malawi. But in Switzerland the question of the participation of foreign residents is more pressing than in other countries because the proportion of foreigners is high: around a quarter of permanent residents are not Swiss.

This can lead to strange situations. In the 2019 federal elections, the municipality of Spreitenbach, in northern Switzerland, had as many foreigners of legal age as there were people with the right to vote. The electorate represented only 39% of the population. In addition, the turnout in Spreitenbach was very low, so that only 10% of all residents participated in the elections.

For a very long time, another huge segment of society has been excluded from democratic representation: women.

“The proportion of foreign residents has reached dimensions that can no longer be ignored”, explains Sanija Ameti, co-president of the pro-European movement Operation Libero.

Ameti was three years old when his parents fled Bosnia for Switzerland. When she was young, a number of popular initiatives, usually launched by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, concerned migration policy and often aroused feelings against the Balkan diaspora.

“My parents and I had no say in these votes even though we were directly affected by them. It was extremely frustrating, because we had no choice but to support xenophobic and anti-Muslim politics, ”Ameti said, adding that this was one of the reasons she entered politics.

“The mass immigration initiative politicized me,” says Hendrik Jansen, who was born, raised and educated in Switzerland. Today he works in public administration and cannot express his opinion in public, so we have changed his name.

In 2014, Swiss voters narrowly approved a proposal to curb immigration, placing limits on the number of foreigners allowed into the country.

Jansen points out that as a Dutchman he has an easier time than other migrants. “People rarely have problems with northern Europeans,” he says. “When I say where I’m from, the answer is often, ‘You’re one of the good guys!’ But the law doesn’t care: a stricter deportation law, for example, also affects anyone without a passport.

The right to vote as a means of integration?

Jansen, who is active in clubs and volunteers, could vote if he adopted Swiss citizenship. So why not him? “At the municipal level, at the very least, citizenship should not be a prerequisite,” he says. “If I’m engaged in society, I should be able to vote. ”

He thus addresses one of the main arguments put forward by defenders of the right to vote for foreigners: residents without a Swiss passport participate in community life and pay taxes in Switzerland – why could they not vote on the fate of this money. ?

They are directly affected by Swiss laws, so why should part of the population be denied the right to vote on the rules they must obey? At the same time, Switzerland guarantees the right to vote to a group of people who do not pay taxes in Switzerland and are not directly affected by most laws: Swiss expatriates.

Even if Jansen wanted to become Swiss, it would take time. He recently moved – just a few kilometers away, but in a new municipality. This means that any application for citizenship would have to wait several years.

Ameti, on the other hand, acquired Swiss nationality and is an active politician in the Green Liberal Party. “I was lucky enough to be able to apply for citizenship in the city of Zurich,” she says. “The citizenship process is not so fair everywhere – in some municipalities people are subjected to real harassment.”

Ameti believes that the idea of ​​integration through political participation should be revived. Jens Weber’s example shows that it can work.

Weber lives in the municipality of Trogen, in the northeast, one of the few villages in German-speaking Switzerland to recognize the right to vote for foreigners (see box). As an American he was elected to the local council in 2006. “It was one of the best days of my life, when I went to Trogen in 2006 and got to say ‘it’s true, now I can participate! ”, he declared in a SWI swissinfo.ch roundtable. “This experience had a major impact on me and convinced me that I wanted to become a Swiss citizen,” he says.

Diversity goes without saying

However, a possible reform of the voting or naturalization laws is not the only decisive factor in the fair treatment of the many Swiss residents without nationality.

“What is needed is an honest discussion about what and who is Switzerland,” Cuero says. “We need Switzerland’s self-image to reflect the diversity of this society.”

“Anyone who insists that there is one defining Swiss culture should explain to me the Rösti divide,” Jansen says, referring to the linguistic divide between the French-speaking and German-speaking parts of the country. “The Swiss are not all the same. There are differences between them which are not necessarily smaller than the differences between a Swiss and a foreigner.

Voting rights for foreigners: French-speaking Switzerland in the lead

In almost all French-speaking cantons, foreign residents can vote at the municipal level and in some cases at the cantonal level.

In German-speaking Switzerland, on the other hand, only foreigners residing in certain municipalities of the cantons of Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Graubünden can vote. In some other cantons, such as Zurich, the right to vote for foreigners is under discussion. In the canton of Solothurn, an initiative for the voting rights of foreigners was rejected in December.

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