IMMIGRANT VOTING RIGHTS IN SWITZERLAND
The Immigrant Voting Project and
New York University Law Students for Human Rights
In Switzerland, non-citizen voting rights initiatives have had considerable success when introduced in connection with broader reforms, even in jurisdictions where they previously may have failed when introduced independently.
Switzerland’s 1.5 million foreign residents represent over 20% of the nation’s entire population of 7.4 million (August 2005). In particular since the 1990s, the question of political rights of immigrants has been and continues to be a highly debated issue in Swiss politics. Because Switzerland is a federal state with three different levels – the Confederation, the 26 cantons and their local communes – non-citizen voting rights vary greatly depending on the individual entity. Foreigners may not cast ballots on the national level, but they may be entitled to vote and, in some cases, to run for office on the cantonal or communal level.
Scope and Requirements of Political Rights of Non-Citizens
Foreigners have no political rights on the national level. They are therefore not entitled to vote in federal ballots concerning the federal constitution or federal legislation. However, immigrants may vote or be a candidate on the cantonal or communal level, as each canton is free to grant such rights within its political autonomy.
As of October 2005, five of the 26 cantons have introduced political rights for their foreign residents. The scope of political participation and the requirements to be met on the side of a foreigner vary: In the cantons of Neuchâtel and Jura the political rights of foreigners include both communal and cantonal matters. In contrast, in the cantons of Vaud, Geneva and Fribourg non-citizens may only have a voice on the lower, communal level. To a varying degree, some of these cantons also provide the right of foreigners to be a candidate in cantonal and/or communal elections.
The requirements non-citizens must meet in order to be entitled to vote are fairly strict. In the cantons of Neuchâtel, Fribourg and Vaud foreigners first of all have to hold a permanent residence permit. Such a permit is granted – depending on the country of origin – after five or ten years of (legal) residence in Switzerland. In addition, all five cantons require a minimum residence period in Switzerland, the canton and/or the commune that range between one to ten years.
Two further (German-speaking) cantons, the canton of Grisons and Appenzell Ausserrhoden, have taken a distinct approach to political rights of non-citizens. These cantons do not provide for voting rights of foreigners on a cantonal level, but have authorized their communes to establish such rights on the local level based on certain requirements (residence permit, minimum residence period). So far, three communes of Appenzell Ausserrhoden canton and one commune of Grisons grant their foreign residents political rights in communal elections and ballots.
Historical and Political Background
In the canton of Neuchâtel, non-citizen voting rights on the communal level date back to the foundation of the canton in 1849 (voting rights on the cantonal level were introduced only in 2000). Apart from this remarkable example, political rights for foreign residents are a fairly recent phenomenon in Swiss politics. Jura introduced non-citizen voting rights at the time of its foundation in 1978. All other cantons have enacted the respective legislation between 1995 and 2005
Endeavours to enhance political rights of foreigners have been pursued in many Swiss cantons since the 1990s. In many instances these efforts have failed. Thus, the question is: Why have political rights of foreigners been introduced in particular cantons and communes and not in others? Some of the possible reasons include the following:
Political forces and linguistic-political divide. Political rights of foreigners are usually supported by the socialist party, the unions and the center-left politicians. These political forces are generally stronger in the French-speaking west of Switzerland (including about 20% of the Swiss population) and their efforts have proven more successful in this part of the country: the five cantons in which foreigners enjoy voting rights cover most of the French-speaking territory of Switzerland. In this respect, the issue of non-citizen voting rights seems to confirm the commonly alleged political divide between the German- and the French-speaking part of the country. However, the examples Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Grisons cantons, both covering predominantly German-speaking regions and granting (although to a lesser degree) non-citizen voting rights, make such an explanation incomplete at best.
“Package deals”: In many cases non-citizen voting rights and/or eligibility have been introduced or further extended in connection with a broader constitutional reform. Interestingly, before these reforms were approved by the electorate, popular initiatives aiming for voting rights for foreigners had failed (e.g. popular initiatives aimed at the introduction/expansion of non-citizen voting-rights failed in the cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel in 1993/1990; rights provided by the new cantonal constitutions in 2002/2000). One possible interpretation may be that as a part of a “package,” this reform seems to have attracted more affirmative votes than as a stand-alone project. It may also be that the idea of political rights of non-citizens has gained more acceptance among the electorate over the years of continuous debate.
Impact of political rights for foreign populations: Political rights have a great importance in the Swiss political system which is founded on the principle of direct democracy and federalism. Although foreigners do not enjoy any voting rights on federal level, participatory rights on the cantonal and, to a lesser degree, on the communal level include a substantial part of political power. Another factor to consider is the high proportion of immigrants in the overall population (over 20% in the national average; 38% in Geneva; 56% of immigrants to Switzerland originate from EU/EFTA states, 30.9% from other European states – mainly from former Yugoslavia and Turkey – and 13.1% from other countries; these figures not only reflect a high immigration flow but also the fairly strict requirements for naturalization). Therefore, foreign populations may potentially exercise considerable political power on the cantonal and communal level. Some commentators consider this fact as one of the reasons why voting rights of non-citizens are such a “hot topic” in Swiss politics.
Participation Rates of Foreign Voters
The data regarding the participation of the foreign population entitled to vote in cantonal and/or communal ballots suggest that immigrants are not euphoric about their political rights: the figures vary greatly, but their participation rate is generally much lower than that by Swiss nationals whose average participation rate is 45%. The participation rate of foreign voters is usually half that of the Swiss electorate. Interestingly, several non-citizens have already been appointed as local officials in regions where foreigners also are eligible to run for office in popular elections.
The low participation rate of foreigners in local politics is not surprising considering the following: First, several studies of political participation reveal different patterns of participation between various categories of voters. In particular, it was found that well-educated middle- and upper-class voters have strikingly higher participation rates than the less “privileged” parts of society, whether Swiss or foreign. The fact that a considerable number of immigrants have not yet reached the middle or upper social class of Switzerland may therefore partly explain why they are less inclined to cast their votes.
Second, sociologists consider the low participation rates among immigrants to be the “natural” result of the previous exclusion of this population from the political process. It may take some time for foreigners to develop a self-conception as active citizens. This explanation seems to be persuasive when drawing a parallel to the introduction of women voting rights (introduced in Switzerland as late as 1971). After centuries of exclusion from the political process, participation of women remained to be low in the first years after the adoption of the new legislation.
Finally, as foreigners are allowed to political participation only since recently, more data needs to be collected and evaluated in the coming years. Hopefully, they will provide further insights into the issue of political participation of non-citizens.
Evaluating the impact of foreign votes on policy issues, commentators suggest that non-citizen participation do not result in substantial changes in politics. Fears or hopes of political revolution through the voice of non-citizens seem to be unfounded. Political rights of foreigners should rather be viewed as an effective means of integration and enhancement of democracy for all people, whether foreign or national.
SOURCES & REFERENCE LIST
[weblinks last accessed January 17, 2006]
Official documents and statistics:
Rapport du Conseil d’Etat, Secrétariat du Grand Conseil, IN 123-A (Report of the executive of the canton of Geneva to the cantonal legislator regarding the popular initiative for the introduction of voting rights on communal level). Available at:http://www.ge.ch/grandconseil/data/texte/IN00123A.pdf
Exposé des motifs et projets de lois: modifiant la loi du 16 mai 1989 sur l’exercice des droits politiques (LEDP), March 2003 (Report of the executive of the Canton Vaud to the cantonal legislator regarding the introduction of voting rights of non-citizens on communal level). Available at: http://www.dire.vaud.ch/constitution/doc/EMPL_LEDP_150403.pdf
Canton NEUCHATEL, statistics of voting participation available at:http://www.ne.ch/neat/site/jsp/rubrique/rubrique.jsp?StyleType=bleu&CatId=5075
Federal Office for Migration, statistics of foreign population in Switzerland available at:http://www.bfm.admin.ch/index.php?id=18&L=3
Articles and Reports:
M. Etienne GRISEL, Rapport “Le droit de vote des étrangers en Suisse, comparaison avec l’Allemagne et quelques états étrangers”, Venice Commission, 23 May 2005. Available at:http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2005/CDL-EL(2005)014-f.asp
Stephan DILLIER, Die Politischen Rechte, Revue Fribourgeoise de jurisprudence, Numéro Spécial 2005 „Die neue freiburgische Verfassung“, 179-203. Available at:http://www.fr.ch/ofl/rfj/cst/rfj2005_ns_cst_b08_article7_sd.pdf
Harald WALDRAUCH, Electoral Rights for Foreign Nationals: A Comparative Overview, Presented at the Workshop on Citizens, Non-citizens and Voting Rights in Europe, Edinburgh. Available at: http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2005/CDL-EL(2005)014-f.asp
Stéphane BUSSARD, Les Romands rongent leur frein, Le Temps 28 September 2004. Available at: http://www.letemps.ch/dossiers/dossiersarticle.asp?ID=142565
Patrick LUCAS, Les procedures de naturalisation en Suisse romande, Temps 28 September 2004. Available at: http://www.letemps.ch/dossiers/dossiersarticle.asp?ID=142565
David SCHAFFNER, Die Gemeinde Wald im Appenzell ist weit voraus, Tages-Anzeiger, 11 February 2004. Available at: http://www.wald-ar.ch/Eigenes%20Wald/vorreiter.html
La lettre de la citoyenneté, no. 56, March-April 2002. Available at:http://perso.nnx.com/marion/suisse56.htm
La lettre de la citoyenneté, no. 68, March-April 2004. Available at:http://perso.nnx.com/marion/suisse68.htm
La lettre de la citoyenneté, no. 76, July-August 2005. Available at:http://perso.nnx.com/marion/suisse76.htm
Links to cantons and communes with non-citizen voting rights:
Canton NEUCHATEL: http://www.ne.ch/neat/site/
Canton GENEVA: http://www.ge.ch
Canton FRIBOURG: http://admin.fr.ch/ww/fr/pub/index.cfm
Canton JURA: http://www.jura.ch/portal/site
Canton VAUD: http://www.vaud.ch
Canton GRISONS: http://www.gr.ch/Deutsch/index.cfm
Commune WALD: http://www.wald-ar.ch
Commune TROGEN: http://www.trogen.ch/
Commune SPEICHER: http://www.speicher.ch/de/
Other useful links:
Federal office for migration, Information about naturalization available at:http://www.bfm.admin.ch/index.php?id=39&L=3
La Lettre de la citoyenneté (publishing news about non-citizen voting rights worldwide every two month): http://perso.nnx.com/marion/index.html