Political parties are wooing the large expatriate community to win votes ahead of October’s parliamentary elections.
Over the past few years, they have set up international branches, special websites, held political debates abroad and created electoral lists to promote expat candidates.
“Few Swiss are aware of how many of their compatriots live abroad,” says Social Democratic parliamentarian, Hans-Jürg Fehr.
“Anyone hazarding a guess will come up with a number much lower than there actually are. Yet the community of more than 700,000 expatriates is larger than any canton with the exception of Zurich and Bern.”
If the strong growth of the number of Swiss abroad has largely gone unnoticed, it is not being ignored by political parties.
There are two reasons for this: the number of Swiss abroad exercising their voting rights has risen nearly tenfold since they were permitted to cast ballots by mail in 1992. Now, more than 135,000 are registered to take part in votes or elections.
In addition, competition between the parties has become fiercer since the 1990s. They can no longer afford to neglect the pool of votes represented by the Swiss abroad and have therefore extended the battle beyond Switzerland’s borders, creating more branches and a bigger online presence, and organising debates and meetings.
And politicians will be out in force at the Swiss Abroad Congress, being held this weekend in Lugano.
Even if they haven’t had much success, the number of Swiss abroad running for election to parliament has grown strongly. There were 15 in 2003, 44 in 2007 and there are more than 80 this year.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party is particularly active, presenting more than 50 expatriate candidates on eight cantonal electoral lists.
The People’s Party is followed by the centre-left Social Democrats with 14 candidates on three lists. Lagging far behind are the centre-right Christian Democrats and centre-left Greens, who both are on just one list in canton Geneva. The Radicals have managed to muster just three candidates in as many cantons.
But why is the People’s Party so far ahead when it comes to putting forward Swiss abroad candidates?
“We have limited ourselves to canton Geneva because we want to focus on candidates who live just across the border in France,” explains Tim Frey, secretary general of the Christian Democrats.
“These candidates can physically take part in the election campaign. There is no point in multiplying the number of lists filled with unknown candidates who reside in countries far way, like the People’s Party is doing just to attract votes from the Swiss abroad,” Frey adds.
“We’ve renounced the idea of putting together special electoral lists for the Swiss abroad because we’re convinced that they won’t have any chance of success,” says Samuel Lanz, president of the international wing of the Radical party.
“If we are serious about defending the interests of our expatriate compatriots then we must give them a voice in parliament. For this reason we are counting on our candidates in Switzerland who are committed to supporting the demands of the Swiss abroad,” continues Lanz.
Miriam Gurtner, secretary general of the international branch of the People’s Party, doesn’t buy this argument: “Our electoral lists will certainly contribute to raising awareness among the Swiss population of the existence of the large expat community, if only of their demands and rights.
“And we are striving to integrate candidates living abroad in our structures as much as possible: in commissions and assemblies of party delegates. We don’t only want to integrate them for the elections but also in policymaking so they can contribute their ideas.”
Despite these efforts, Fehr of the Social Democrats is convinced that no candidate from abroad will be elected this year.
“The only chance for a Swiss abroad to be elected is if a constituency is created for them, which would be like a 27th canton,” Fehr says.
“A parliamentary initiative with this aim – that was launched by one of our members – failed to win enough support in the Senate two years ago. We’ll take up this issue in the next parliamentary term.”
This idea inspired by similar models already in place in other countries, has not found favour with the other main parties.
“It’s the wrong approach because the Swiss abroad remain closely tied to their canton of origin. The creation of a 27th canton would mean they would lose their political rights in their home canton,” argues Lanz.
“I think the problem isn’t at the federal level but more rights need to be granted to the Swiss abroad at the cantonal level.”
Frey is also opposed: “We have yet to evaluate this proposal but it would seem to be contrary to the principle of federalism, on which our state is based. All Swiss, including expats, have their roots somewhere in the country.”
His position is shared by Gurnter. “The Swiss abroad can’t be confined to only vote for other expats but should have the chance to vote for candidates from their canton if they think they will best represent them.”
The proposal for a special Swiss abroad constituency (already passed by the House of Representatives) may have a good chance of winning approval in the Senate if, once again, no Swiss abroad is elected to parliament.
Swiss abroad vote
At the end of 2010 there were about 700,000 Swiss citizens living abroad – representing about 10% of the domestic population. In 2000 the number of Swiss abroad stood at 580,393.
The biggest increase since 2009 was recorded among the expatriate community in Asia (+4.7%). In absolute figures the Swiss abroad in France (+1,508) and Germany (+1,126) saw the most marked rise.
The Swiss abroad have had the right to take part in votes and elections since 1992.
The number of Swiss expats who have registered to exercise their political rights is growing steadily and stands at 135,000 - an increase of 4.5% over two years. Currently about 25% of expatriates over the age of 18 have registered to vote and participate in elections.
Expats can use the postal service to cast their ballot in elections. In some cases they can also take part in votes on specific issues.
Swiss Abroad Congress
As part of its programme the 2011 Congress will have as its main theme, “Direct Democracy in an International Context”.
The focus of the meeting of the Swiss Abroad Council (August 26) is the parliamentary elections. Various representatives of Switzerland’s largest parties will participate.
The transport, energy and communications minister, Doris Leuthard, will attend the plenary session (August 27), which is open to all.
(Translated from Italian by Dale Bechtel), swissinfo.ch