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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

OPINION: Switzerland’s denial of voting rights to foreigners motivated by fear

Fribourg-based journalist Clare O'Dea discusses why the continued denial of suffrage to foreigners is an injustice "in a country with a history of disenfranchising large segments of the population."

A sign in the western Swiss canton of Vaud reminding people of a referendum on Sunday. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
A sign in the western Swiss canton of Vaud reminding people of a referendum on Sunday. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

It is incredible how complacent Switzerland is about the fact that one in four residents does not have the right to vote. There is no action plan to address the issue, and no great concern about the moral implications of this exclusion or the impact on social cohesion.

The country has a history of disenfranchising large segments of the population, shamefacedly marking a mere 50 years of the women’s vote last year.

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

But parallels between women’s voting rights and voting rights for foreigners, drawn by some campaigners, do not seem to have caught the public imagination.  

The high percentage of foreigners (25 per cent) is seen as an inevitable fact of life. As if Switzerland just can’t be help being so attractive. However, these so-called foreigners include a large proportion of Swiss-born residents, people who would not be considered foreign in other countries. 

The vast majority of European Union countries have a foreign population below 10 per cent. Not including Luxembourg, Austria has the highest share in the EU at 16 per cent. Yes, Switzerland has a had a historically high rate of immigration but what really makes the country an outlier is its strict naturalisation policy that keeps foreigners artificially foreign.

One way to expand the circle of voters and make Switzerland more democratic would be to actually grant federal voting rights to foreigners who meet certain residency conditions. A small number of cantons are leading the way in this regard.

Neuchâtel and Jura have given the right to vote to foreign citizens, subject to certain conditions, but not the right to run for election.  

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

The cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura have granted foreign residents the right to vote and to be elected at communal level. Basel City, Graubünden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden are following this model too but the uptake by their communes is patchy. 

Again, at communal level, the canton of Geneva grants the right to vote and the right to elect but not to be elected. And that’s it. Most foreigners in Switzerland are simply not included in the political process at any level.

Another more efficient way to extend voting rights to more people would be to redefine some foreigners as Swiss. Their Swissness is already obvious in the right light – it’s just not officially recognised. 

Because of the onerous, lengthy and expensive naturalisation procedure, people remain technically foreign for much too long, in many cases for life. 

At the very least, Switzerland could initiate a citizenship recruitment drive to make sure all the people who could be Swiss under the current rules are encouraged to come into the fold through naturalisation. 

READ MORE: Switzerland marks 50 years of women voting

But this would require a fundamental shift in how naturalisation is perceived. The system would need to change from a restrictive fear-based approach to a completely different, more welcoming ethos. 

The government’s position on naturalisation is clear.

“Only those who are successfully integrated and present no danger to Switzerland’s internal or external security should be granted Swiss citizenship.”

This statement was given last year in response to a failed parliamentary motion seeking to introduce citizenship by birth in the country – the jus solis principle. The same language is used across official publications. 

Notice the word ‘danger’. This, along with the wonderfully-subjective term ‘integration’, makes the process intimidating by design. The rationale for the high barriers to naturalisation, including an examination of each application individually, with interviews, is to root out the bad apples.

The problem is that this officious and suspicious approach also deters good potential citizens from coming forward. 

When 30 per cent of births in Switzerland are to two foreign parents, this is not a marginal issue. Those babies are an essential gift to Switzerland, ready to be loyal to their homeland but kept at arm’s length with the label ‘foreign’. 

READ MORE: Would you pass the Swiss citizenship test?

With all the talk of integration, Swiss officialdom is missing the most important integration tool of all – having a Swiss child in the family. Growing up feeling that you belong, not feeling that you have to prove you belong. Is that too much to ask? 

There is a false perception that anyone who hasn’t navigated the rocky path to citizenship has chosen to exclude themselves from political participation. This ignores the barriers deliberately put in place to keep the numbers of new citizens low. 

There is also a class element to this, where only families with a higher level of income, connections and education have the resources to pursue naturalisation. 

Switzerland stands out as having the most restrictive naturalisation policy in Europe. Since the law on citizenship was tightened in 2018, even fewer people than before are successfully proving their worthiness to be Swiss. Only 25,600 people became Swiss through naturalisation last year. Not much out of a population of 2.1 million foreigners.

Swiss politicians and voters steadfastly keep the barriers to naturalisation high. Why? Because all the emphasis is on the value of Swiss citizenship and too little value is placed on future citizens themselves who are actually a win for the country. 

One of the flaws of direct democracy is that there is an inbuilt disincentive to broaden the pool of voters.

Sadly, as long as Swiss voters are afraid of their neighbours with foreign surnames having a say in how their shared society is run, nothing will change. 

READ MORE: The nine most surprising questions on Switzerland’s citizenship exam

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ZURICH

Zurich approves simplified path to Swiss citizenship

Voters in Switzerland’s most populous canton on Sunday approved a proposal which will make it easier for foreigners to get Swiss citizenship.

Zurich approves simplified path to Swiss citizenship

The vote passed with 69.1 percent support, making it the most popular of the four initiatives put to the polls. 

Around 350,000 foreigners live in Zurich, which is roughly one quarter of the population – although the percentage is as high as 50 percent in some municipalities. 

The successful proposal called for Zurich’s naturalisation process, including the citizenship exam, to be made uniform across all 162 municipalities. 

The questions in the exam will now be centralised on a cantonal level. 

The test will include 350 questions about Swiss history, tradition, politics and culture, with a focus on Zurich. 

Anyone taking the test will be given 50 questions at random and must answer at least 30 correctly to pass. 

More information about the citizenship process in Zurich can be found at the following link. 

EXPLAINED: How Zurich wants to make naturalisation easier

What else was decided on Sunday? 

Voters in Zurich also decided to reject a proposal to lower the voting age to 16, with 64.1 percent saying ‘nein’ to the proposal. 

A proposal to provide for more parental leave – and even up gender imbalances between fathers and mothers – was also rejected. 

Finally, voters supported law changes which sought to enshrine Zurich’s climate change goals in the cantonal constitution. 

A detailed breakdown of the vote can be seen here. 

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