The resounding approval from the Swiss abroad to the government’s proposal of a combined radio and television licence has raised some questions about the propriety of having expat citizens vote on something that does not affect them – in this case, they don’t have to pay the licence fee.
Rarely has a nationwide vote in Switzerland been decided by such a slim margin. On June 14, the Yes and No votes were only about 3,200 apart, less than 0.2 percentage points according to provisional final results.
Without the votes of Swiss living abroad, the proposal would not have passed, it now appears from the figures in the ten cantons of Switzerland where expat votes are counted separately and not lumped in with the votes of their home municipalities.
No details are available from the other 16 cantons.
The difference in the way residents and expatriates voted is striking. In canton Zurich, for example, the proposal was rejected by 47.9% of voters. But expatriate voters approved it by 63.2% (4,470 said Yes and 2,600 No).
The story was much the same in Lucerne, Aargau, St Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Valais, Basel City, Fribourg and Vaud. In all ten cantons, Swiss abroad welcomed the amended law.
Why the strong yes vote?
Political analyst Hermann, who authored a 2012 study of voting patterns among Swiss abroad, is not surprised at the strong ‘yes’ of the expatriates to the radio and TV licence proposal.
“They are more progressive than the average, and are mostly supportive of government,” Hermann says.
For OSA President Eggly, “Swiss abroad are used to the radio and television channels of SBC – they represent a link to the old country -and they may have got the impression that the SBC was under attack”.
For the Swiss abroad, Yes votes in these ten cantons totalled 19,947, while No votes totalled 11,708, according to figures published in the newspapers Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund. This meant a gap of 8,239 votes that helped to make the difference nationally.
It is not the first time that this has happened. In 2009, the introduction of the biometric passport was accepted by a margin of just 5,000 votes, while in 2002 the people’s initiative against alleged abuses of the right of asylum failed to win approval by little more than 4,000 votes.
In both cases the vote of Swiss abroad – who tended to favour the first proposal and reject the second – weighed heavily on the outcome.
Right to vote questioned
This time, the result annoyed people who opposed the new funding system for public radio and TV.
On Twitter, a writer for the conservative weekly Weltwoche said that Swiss abroad “should not have the right to vote on issues or taxes” which affect only those who live here. “Swiss abroad”, he fumed in another tweet, “cannot be allowed to impose a new tax on residents. Urgent need for reform.”
Since they do not live in Switzerland, expatriates do not have to fork out for a radio TV licence. But they can receive the programmes of the national broadcaster with a Sat Access card, which costs CHF 120 ($129) per year - value added tax of 9% to 20% (depending on the country) is not included; and it costs CHF60 to buy the card.
Parliamentarian Natalie Rickli of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party, who campaigned against the new combined fee, has said she is “annoyed at the idea that people who don’t have to pay get to decide”.
Asked by swissinfo.ch, Rickli said that she did not mean to question the right of Swiss abroad to vote. “There is no need for change,” she says.
For political scientist and geographer Michael Hermann, all these criticisms have no merit.
Following the same reasoning, he says, “someone who does not have to pay inheritance tax should not be able to vote on a proposal regarding that kind of tax”.
For just about every topic that is voted on, Hermann points out, there are categories of people who are not directly affected.
When a decision depends on so few votes, you could always find some group or other to blame for the result.
“It could have been people with red hair” who tipped the balance, as was suggested sarcastically by Ariane Rustichelli, co-director of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), in Der Bund and the Tages-Anzeiger.
For the nationwide vote on June 14 2015, Swiss abroad who are on the electoral register could vote online in 14 out of 26 cantons.
Geneva and Neuchâtel offered this option to resident voters too as part of an ongoing test with e-voting.
Of the 197,000 citizens (of whom 100,000 were Swiss expatriates) who could vote by internet, 28,860 availed of this option. Among Swiss abroad, the percentage of those who made use of the option was about 60%.
If the spotlight was on Swiss expatriates this time, it was merely because a separate breakdown is available for this category of voters, concludes Hermann.
OSA president Jacques-Simon Eggly hopes that this controversy will soon die down and be forgotten, especially as Switzerland is “trying to encourage Swiss abroad to vote”.
Eggly adds that “this kind of objection was there from the beginning” when legislation was introduced in 1992 to give expatriates voting rights.
“The objections have not gone away, although there is almost no politician who will express them openly. Luckily most citizens believe that participation in political life by Swiss abroad is a good idea,” Eggly says.
Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee