Communications Minister Doris Leuthard has called for active participation in October’s parliamentary elections to keep Switzerland’s system of direct democracy alive.
Speaking in Geneva at this year’s congress of the Swiss abroad, Leuthard stressed the importance of civic education to uphold democracy and the role of the expatriate community to give an outside perspective on Switzerland.
Facts and figures
Most of the about 750,000 registered Swiss expatriates live in neighbouring European countries and have double nationality.
There is also a sizeable number in both North and South America as well as in Asia.
About 142,000 Swiss expats have registered to take part in elections and votes at home.
The interests of the expatriate community are represented by the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).
Schools, teachers with a passion for civic education as well as quality media and the internet play a central part in providing the necessary information to citizens, according to Leuthard.
“But it is not enough to build our democracy,” she said. “The true essence of democracy is a political debate,” she said on Saturday.
The Swiss abroad community added openness as a key quality necessary for the creation of our political culture in Switzerland, she continued.
Leuthard said narrow-mindedness or the glorification of the past did not help the country tackle the current challenges, notably in its relations with the European Union or with immigration.
“We need to be aware of our particularities, the advantages and weaknesses of Switzerland, of our history and culture,” she said.
Leuthard appealed to the expatriates to take part in the parliamentary elections, despite a setback for e-voting following the government’s decision last Wednesday to limit the number of citizens eligible to use the internet to cast their ballot.
“The principle of the secret vote is untouchable,” she said. Nevertheless, Leuthard is optimistic, that current technical flaws can be ironed out and that, hopefully by 2019 every registered Swiss expatriate can use e-voting.
She called for closer cooperation between the cantons to find a reliable solution.
The two-day congress also saw the launch of a youth parliament for the Swiss abroad. It is aimed at fostering the interest of young expats in the political debate at home and boosting their links with Switzerland.
The assembly of members aged 15 to 35 is due to elect its representatives in October.
In his farewell speech, the outgoing president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), Jacques-Simon Eggly, warmly welcomed the initiative.
“The youth parliament is a commendable example to prove that the Swiss abroad contribute to the political debate,” he said.
Virus of democracy
Earlier in the day, Anja Wyder Guelpa, chancellor of canton Geneva, told the congress of the efforts by the authorities and private partners to encourage the young generation to participate in political life.
She said there were promising signs that voter participation among the young is on the increase and the “virus of democracy” continues to spread.
There is no simple remedy for voter abstinence, according to Wyder Guelpa. But a combination of campaigns, the use of different forms of media and civic education at school may be the way ahead.
Only one in three young citizens took part in the 2011 parliamentary elections, according to a survey. Votes are often considered as too complex.
For her part, Manon Schick, director of the Swiss section of Amnesty International, pointed out the importance of civic education for the promotion of human rights and sustainable development.
Hans Stöckli, senator and president of the independent New Helvetic Society, a non-partisan organisation founded a century ago to promote political reform and democracy, in his presentation summed up the multiple efforts to engage citizens.
He underlined the need for continuing civic education, saying “democracy does not fall from the sky, not even in Switzerland.”
Council of Swiss Abroad
The Council of the Swiss Abroad, the assembly of OSA delegates from around the world, on Friday elected Remo Gysin as new president.
The former parliamentarian takes over from Jacques-Simon Eggly, who stepped down after eight years.
The council also discussed Swiss banks for limiting financial services for expatriates and a government decision to restrict e-voting for the expatriate community for the October parliamentary elections.
The two-day congress in Geneva was attended by 390 people, according to organisers.