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The huge foreigner-sized hole in Swiss democracy

George Mills
George Mills - [email protected]
The huge foreigner-sized hole in Swiss democracy
Swiss political science professor Joachim Blatter would like foreigners in the country to be given the right to vote after five years. Photo: AFP

The Swiss democratic system is seriously failing the one in four residents in the country who are foreigners, a major new study published on Wednesday suggests.


The study commissioned by the Federal Commission on Migration (FCM) advisory group looks at the impact of dual nationality on Swiss society.

Around one in four Swiss residents now holds two passports, a number that has soared since Switzerland legalised dual nationality in 1992 – thus establishing itself as something of a pioneer.

The FCM study is generally positive about developments over the last quarter century. Its authors note that foreigners who take up Swiss citizenship “identify more closely with the country where they live” and are "better integrated both socially and culturally”.

It also concludes that dual nationals “are no less loyal to Switzerland” despite having connections with multiple countries.

'A democratic imperative'

But the study also says Switzerland is suffering from a serious "democratic deficit", or lack of democracy.

This deficit stems from the fact that Switzerland's huge foreign population (around one in four people) does not have the right to vote.

“The democratic deficit is particularly extreme in Switzerland,” study author and political science professor at the University of Lucerne, Joachim Blatter, told The Local.

Blatter believes Switzerland must either relax citizenship requirements – by reducing the prior residency requirement from ten to five years – or give foreigners the right to vote, again after five years.

“This is a democratic imperative,” he said.

The political science professor would also like the Swiss citizenship process made less off-putting. He notes that over half of Switzerland's foreigners actually meet the residency requirements and could apply for citizenship, but are reluctant to do so because the process is so “arduous” and expensive.

However, he concedes there is also widespread political and social opposition to the changes he advocates.

A campaign to encourage people in Zurich to take out citizenship was met with a political outcry, while a number of cantonal proposals aimed at giving foreigners the rote to vote at the cantonal level were all rejected by more than 70 percent of voters.

For Blatter, opposition to giving foreigners the right to vote is one of the pitfalls of Switzerland’s direct democratic system.

“Under this system, Swiss voters have more power than in other countries, where that power rests with political parties," he said.

"But people also feel they have to give up power if other people have the right to vote. It is a zero-sum game,” he explained.

The fraught issue of dual nationality

The new FCM report into dual nationality takes an in-depth look at what is a politically sensitive issue in Switzerland.

The issue made national headlines this year when three Swiss footballers, including Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri who have a Kosovo Albanian background, celebrated goals scored against in a World Cup match against Serbia with a hand gesture representing the “double eagle” of the Albanian flag.

The gesture divided the increasingly international Swiss public, many of whom are dual nationals.

Some supported the players whose families had come to Switzerland during the 1998-1999 war between Kosovo ethnic Albanian pro-independence guerrilla and Serbian forces. Others, meanwhile, said it showed that the players' loyalties were divided.

In recent years, members of the nationalist Swiss People's Party (SVP) have periodically called for the right to dual nationality for Swiss people to be either limited or scrapped, arguing that the holding of two passports can mean reduced loyalty to Switzerland.

But while the FCM report is generally positive about dual nationality, it does note some risks including the fact that people with more than one passport may see their responsibilities outweigh their rights.

There is also a danger in giving people a say on laws they will not be subject to, the study argues – a reference to the some 750.000 Swiss citizens who live abroad but have the right to vote in Switzerland.


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