Foreigners one step closer to voting rights in Zurich – but there’s a catch

Foreigners one step closer to voting rights in Zurich - but there's a catch
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Voting rights are notoriously restricted for foreigners in Switzerland. Parliament in Zurich is likely to pass a proposal to allow foreign residents to vote just two years after arriving - but there’s a catch.

Of all of the topics relevant to foreigners that we discuss on The Local Switzerland, one of the most common is foreigner voting rights

The proposal, which has already passed the executive in Zurich and is expected to be approved by parliament, hopes to extend voting rights to foreigners in the canton after just two years of residency. 

The votes would be valid in local and cantonal elections only, meaning foreigners will still be restricted from voting in federal elections. 

There is a catch however, as the proposal must be approved by a popular vote put to residents of the canton of Zurich – i.e. those who can already vote. 

Just under one in two Zurich residents does not hold a Swiss passport, meaning that half of the electorate would be voting on a proposal which would effectively double the number of electors. 

If past history is anything to go by, the approval of a majority of Zurchers is by no means guaranteed. A similar proposal was put to voters in Basel in 2009, with 80 percent deciding against extending suffrage rights to foreigners. 

If it is approved, the right to vote isn’t automatic. Individual municipalities in Zurich will need to make a decision as to whether or not they will extend rights to vote to foreigners. 

Foreigner voting rights in Switzerland

Switzerland is one of the world’s most restrictive countries when it comes to granting foreigners the right to vote, with some being denied voting rights decades after moving to the country. 

Generally speaking only Swiss citizens may vote in elections. Foreigners are required to live in the country for a minimum of ten years before applying for citizenship. 

Foreigners' rights to vote in Switzerland differ significantly depending on the canton. Foreigners in Vaud, Fribourg, Neuchâtel and Jura are allowed to vote and to run for office, while in Geneva foreigners are permitted to vote but cannot be elected. Graubunden, Basel-City and Appenzell Ausserrhoden let individual municipalities decide.

READ: 'I pay taxes but have no say in Swiss life': Your views on whether Switzerland should allow all foreigners to vote 

The restrictions are in place for a variety of reasons including Switzerland’s slow moving legal structure, however a major reason they are still in place is locals’ concerns about losing political power. 

An estimated one in four residents of Switzerland is a foreigner, meaning that there could be significant electoral shifts should voting laws be relaxed. 

In bigger cities the percentage of foreigners is even higher, with 47 percent of Zurich residents not possessing a Swiss passport. 

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