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Political voice

Think tank: give foreigners local voting rights

A Swiss think tank is urging Switzerland to give foreigners greater voting rights at the local level, such as allowing foreign residents to stand for local political office. Such a measure will help integration, it argues. 

A new study by the Swiss think tank Avenir Suisse, published on Tuesday, reveals that foreigners have local voting rights in 600 municipalities across Switzerland, out of a total of 2,596. But rights are very unevenly spread regionally, among 575 communes in French-speaking Switzerland, 22 in the German-speaking canton of Graubünden and three in the small German-speaking canton of Appenzell Outer-Rhodes.

The absolute number of politically active foreigners was still relatively small, the study found. In the 317 communes that responded to the survey, currently 148 non-Swiss hold legislative positions and 19 hold executive office posts. 

According to Avenir Suisse, these modest numbers are partly due to the lack of proper information for foreigners.

“Basically, foreign nationals have no political rights whatsoever federally. However, things can be different at the cantonal level. Many foreigners simply don’t know about their political rights and don’t exercise them as a result,” it said in a statement.

“Voting rights for foreigners at the local level are a step in the right direction, as they demonstrate that immigrants – in a country of immigrants like Switzerland – are treated as serious members of society.”

In communes that have introduced voting rights for foreigners, there are high levels of satisfaction, the think tank declared. Not a single municipality contacted by the study authors had considered abolishing its electoral reform for foreigners, said Avenir Suisse.

The policy institute says supporters of efforts to extend political rights to foreign residents must be patient and adopt a ‘step-by-step approach’. It explained that numerous referendums on this issue have failed at the ballot box, with opposing majorities of two-thirds or more. 

In Switzerland, foreigners are largely excluded from participation in the political system. They can neither cast their votes in federal ballots nor participate in federal elections. But cantons and municipalities can issue their own provisions on political participation. The place of residence therefore defines whether persons without a Swiss passport are granted political rights.  

Voting, electing and serving

Only five of 26 cantons give foreigners the opportunity to participate in politics by voting on initiatives, electing officials or holding an office. In all cases they are required to have lived in Switzerland and/or the canton for a certain number of years. 

Non-Swiss in Fribourg and Vaud have no rights at the cantonal level. At the community level they can vote, elect and hold office. Non-Swiss in Geneva have no rights at the cantonal level. At the community level they can vote and elect but not hold an office. Non-Swiss who have lived in Jura and Neuchâtel can vote and elect at the cantonal level but not hold an office. At the community level they can vote and elect and hold certain offices.

In three cantons in German-speaking Switzerland – Appenzell Outer Rhodes, Graubünden and parts of Basel City – communities have the option of allowing non-Swiss to participate politically, but none of the communities have taken advantage of the option.

(Source: Federal Commission on Migration)