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Canton Jura aims to expand foreigners' rights

On Sunday, Swiss voters will not only be asked to make a decision on bilateral accords with the European Union. They are also voting on a number of local issues, and in canton Jura will decide whether to expand the political rights of foreigners.

The Swiss political system gives voters a voice from the national through to the smallest local level, on issues from foreign relations to whether the village should get a new bus stop. However, the actual makeup of the electorate varies across the country.

Foreigners make up around 20 per cent of the Swiss population, and many of them are long-term residents. Apart from military service, they have the same obligations as a citizen, including paying tax. This has led to calls for their political rights to be expanded.

Canton Jura currently leads the way in Switzerland in terms of the rights it has already given to foreigners. After ten years' residence in the canton, they are allowed to vote in elections both at the cantonal and the communal level, although not on issues affecting the Jura constitution.

This right is enshrined in the constitution of the country's youngest canton, which was established in 1978. The question put before the voters on Sunday will be whether to allow foreigners to serve on the executives of canton Jura's town councils.

Joel Bindit, who is responsible for electoral issues in canton Jura, told swissinfo the authorities had done a lot of work to ensure foreigners were politically integrated. This included asking them to help out during election night counts, in order to increase their interest in exercising their political rights.

If the vote goes ahead, Jura will be one step further ahead of its fellow Swiss cantons. While canton Neuchatel has allowed foreigners to vote in communal elections since as far back as 1848, the right does not extend to cantonal votes.

Neuchatel's voters will go to the polls in September to decide whether to amend the rules in order to allow foreigners with five year's residence to vote at the cantonal level. In other cantons over the past ten years there have been similar referenda, but none have been passed.

The last time canton Jura voted on extending foreigners' political rights, in 1996, the result was close. Just over 52 per cent of the electorate rejected the proposition.

Ironically, had Jura's foreign electorate been more active at the time, the referendum may have been passed. Just over 31 per cent of the foreign voters turned out, as against 39 per cent of the electorate as a whole.

by Jonathan Fowler


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