Fifty years ago on Sunday the Swiss voted overwhelmingly to allow the Swiss abroad to “enter” into the Swiss constitution. This set down the basis for legislating on expats’ rights and duties, particularly in exercising their political rights. But the road ahead was a rocky one.
The vote, which gathered the support of all the cantons and 68.1% of voters, was considered a milestone for the Swiss abroad. The new constitutional article officially recognised their historical, political and economic role. It also underlined the importance of strengthening relations between the government and the expat community.
The recognition was considered long overdue by the Swiss government.
There had nevertheless been quite a few acts of parliament beforehand in this direction. In 1963 the Swiss foreign ministry put forward a report considering the possibility of drawing up a constitutional article on the Swiss abroad.
The text, which can now be consulted on the Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland website via its Dodis database, states that the idea dated back to the 19th century and there were even moves from “the period immediately after the foundation of the federal state” in 1848.
“It’s not about conceding privileges to the Swiss abroad, but ensuring instead that federal legislation takes into account their specific conditions,” the report highlighted. The result of the 1966 vote shows to what extent the Swiss population shared this concern.
Slow direct democracy machine
Fundamental as it was for promoting relations, supporting Swiss abroad institutions and setting out expats’ rights and duties, the new constitutional article was not aimed at carrying out reforms at full speed.
Indeed, it did not even oblige the government to carry out these tasks, instead giving it “the option” of implementing them. Furthermore, it issued provisions “after having listened to the cantons”.
It was hardly surprising that five years afterwards, the minister Ernst Brugger drew up a meagre first assessment “of what had really been achieved” when he addressed the Congress of the Swiss abroad in Brunnen, central Switzerland. The government’s sole achievement was having introduced a regulation on diplomatic and consular protection of the Swiss abroad, as can be read in the text on the Dodis site.
“Certain particularities in our political decision-making system have meant that it has not been possible to reach the point of complete implementation of legislation,” Brugger conceded.
The minister blamed direct democracy for why constitutional mandates took such a long time in Switzerland.
For him, it was the price that has to be paid for citizens, both male and female [female suffrage having only been introduced in 1971] taking part in policy-making.
In the end, it does not matter whether it was direct democracy, federalism, or even simply administration or parliament that slowed down the implementation of the 1966 constitutional article. The fact remains that it took until the end of 1975 for the Swiss abroad to gain political rights on a federal level and until 1992 for them to be granted the postal vote. It still is not known when they will be able to vote online.
Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson