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

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.

Foreigners one step closer to voting rights in Zurich - but there's a catch
Photo: Depositphotos

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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Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence

Swiss government has devised three contingency plans that could be implemented to fight a new outbreak. What are they?

Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence
Authorities want to prevent overcrowded hospitals if new wave comes. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Although Switzerland relaxed a number of coronavirus rules from June 26th and 28th, “the pandemic is not over”, as Health Minister Alain Berset said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Berset said Switzerland should not become complacent, with last summer a warning against feeling that the battle is won. 

He added, however, that the new wave is unlikely to be as large as the previous ones due to the country’s vaccination campaign.

This situation leaves a degree of uncertainty for which the government wants to be prepared as well as possible, Berset noted.

The Federal Council established a “just-in-case” procedure on Wednesday for three possible scenarios that could take place in the autumn and winter. 

These plans focus mainly on the rapid detection of variants and the continuation of vaccination, testing, and tracing.

The best-case scenario: status quo

In this scenario, the number of cases remains at a low level, though small outbreaks are still possible.

The number of infections may increase slightly due to seasonal factors — the virus is known to spread slower in summer and faster in autumn and winter—  but does not place a significant burden on the health system.

If this happens, no measures beyond those already in place would be necessary.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is Switzerland lifting its Covid-19 restrictions too quickly?

Not so good: more contaminations

In this second scenario, there is an increase in the number of cases in autumn or winter.

There may be several reasons for this, for example the large proportion of unvaccinated people, seasonal effects — people tend to stay indoors together in cold weather, and contaminations are easier — or the appearance of new, more infectious variants.

This situation could overburden the health system and require the reintroduction of certain measures, such as the obligation to wear a mask outdoors.

Booster vaccinations may also be necessary.

The worst: new virus mutations

In scenario three, one or more new variants appear, against which the vaccine or the post-recovery immunity are less effective or no longer effective.

A new wave of pandemic emerges, requiring strong intervention by the public authorities and a new vaccination.

Which of the three scenarios is most likely to happen?

The government hasn’t said, but judging by the comments of health officials, the latter two are the strongest contenders.

Firstly, because the highly contagious Delta mutation, which is spreading quickly through many countries, is expected to be dominant in Switzerland within a few weeks.

It is expected that the virus will spread mostly to those who are not vaccinated and, to a lesser degree, to people who have only had one shot of the vaccine, according to Andreas Cerny, epidemiologist at the University of Bern

READ MORE: How Switzerland plans to contain the Delta variant

Another concern is related to the appearance of the new variants which could be as or possibly even more contagious than Delta and not as responsive to the current vaccines.

The government said the best chance of avoiding the second or third scenarios is to ensure people are vaccinated. 

“Widespread vaccination of the population is crucial to relieve the burden on the healthcare system and to manage the epidemic. A possible increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the autumn will largely depend on the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated,” the government wrote in a press statement.

The government has also indicating it is preparing for booster vaccinations to take place in 2022 and are encouraging cantons to keep their vaccine infrastructures in place.