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Geneva group launches referendum to give foreigners right to vote

An advocacy group hopes to give foreigners in Geneva, who make up around 40 percent of the population, the right to vote in the canton.

The United Nations building in Geneva. Around 40 percent of the canton's residents are foreign. Image: Mathias PR Reding on Unsplash
The United Nations building in Geneva. Around 40 percent of the canton's residents are foreign. Image: Mathias PR Reding on Unsplash

A group of left-wing organisations and trade unions have launched a constitutional initiative which aims to extend the political rights of foreigners at a cantonal level. 

The initiative, which was launched on Thursday, is called “A life here, a voice here… Let us strengthen our democracy”. They have until early August to collect the necessary 8,157 signatures.

About 40 percent of Geneva’s population is made up of foreign nationals, the highest proportion of any canton in Switzerland. 

While they have a right to vote on municipal issues, they have no political rights at the cantonal level.

The initiative would allow Geneva’s foreign residents to vote on cantonal issues, including referenda, however they would still be restricted from taking part in federal votes. 

Currently, only Neuchâtel and Jura grant the right to vote to foreigners on cantonal issues, while many others allow foreigners to vote in municipal elections. 

The initiative wants to include foreigners in the Geneva political process. 

“(They can’t vote) [h]owever, they finance these public policies through their work and their taxes and contribute directly to the social, cultural and economic life of the canton.”

Will foreigners get the right to vote at a federal level? 

One in four residents of Switzerland are unable to vote due to not being Swiss citizens, which would make them a sizeable voter block. 

READ MORE: Will foreigners in Switzerland finally earn the right to vote in federal elections?

Over the years, several efforts to grant restricted or unrestricted voting rights to foreigners have failed. 

In early 2022, Switzerland’s Greens had lodged a proposal to provide foreigners resident in Switzerland for five years with rights to vote and to be elected at a federal level. 

Despite support from Switzerland’s Social Democrats, the measure was rejected by 17 votes to 8 in the SPK-N. 

Those opposed to the measure said no change was necessary, with anyone wanting to gain voting rights free to apply for naturalisation, Swiss news outlet Watson reports. 

According to procedure of the State Political Commission, Switzerland’s National Council will now decide on the matter, however prospects of success are limited due to the rejection. 

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EXPLAINED: How Switzerland wants to cut social assistance for non-Europeans

The Swiss government has unveiled a proposal which would cut social assistance for non-European residents. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland wants to cut social assistance for non-Europeans

As part of a draft revision of the law on foreigners and integration, the Federal Council is proposing to reduce social assistance paid to nationals of third countries.

“During the first three years following the granting a residence permit, the rate of social assistance should be lower than that applied to the native population”, authorities said.

The rationale of the plan is to “create incentives for better work integration”. 

The proposal has been developed by Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter. 

The project was in a consultation phase until May 3rd, after which it will be presented to Swiss parliament.

The cut would save an estimated three million francs per year nationwide. 

What does the proposal say? 

Under the plan, the amount of social assistance will be reduced in the first three years for foreigners in Switzerland, provided they come from outside the EU. 

The social aid paid to non-Europeans is already relatively low, with amounts varying from CHF600 to CHF1,000 depending on the canton. 

READ MORE: How Switzerland wants to cut welfare and boost integration for non-EU citizens

Anyone who has a ‘C’ category residency permit and who receives social assistance will lose it more easily than under the previous scheme. 

The law will also see a more defined set of requirements for integration for temporarily admitted persons. 

In addition, the Federal Statistical Office should regularly report accurate figures of how many foreigners are receiving social assistance. 

In addition, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) must approve the extension of residency permits of individuals who incur “significant” social welfare costs. 

Keller-Sutter will also draw up a uniform set of recommendations for social assistance for foreigners for the cantons. 

What are people saying? 

While the proposal has not yet been finalised, the idea has sparked heavy criticism, while some foreigners are fearful of what it might mean for them should the assistance be lowered. 

A spokesperson for the Social Democrats told Swiss tabloid Blick a cut would be “unworldly and cynical”, while the Greens say such a move would be unconstitutional. 

The proposal sparked criticism from the Swiss Workers’ Welfare Organisation, whose spokesperson, Caroline Morel, pointed out that “in social assistance, the amount of support benefits is calculated according to needs and not the length of stay in Switzerland”.

“We oppose the downgrading of the residence status of foreigners who receive social assistance. We also oppose lower social assistance rates for the first three years, as these are inhumane and hinder professional and social integration.”

“It is clear that these tightening measures will primarily affect vulnerable people such as children, people with special needs, and women”, she added.

The Swiss People’s Party on the other hand have spoken out in favour of the changes, saying it would help curb increases in social assistance contributions.