Citizenship vote reopens old wounds in Emmen

Nearly 60 per cent of all citizenship applications were rejected at the ballot box Keystone

There is still a certain feeling of unease in the central Swiss town of Emmen whenever the issue of foreigners and naturalisations is raised in public.

This content was published on May 12, 2008 - 10:54

The industrial suburb of Lucerne was at the heart of a debate which led the country's highest court to outlaw secret ballots on citizenship applications five years ago. The rightwing Swiss People's Party is hoping to overturn the ruling in a nationwide vote on June 1.

Hans Schwegler, president of the local branch of the People's Party, chooses his words carefully.

Of course he backs the proposal put forward by his colleagues at a national level. But at the same time he admits that the ban on ballot box decisions has had its benefits.

"It is easier for a committee to examine the applications and candidates than it is for individual citizens," he says.

Even within the People's Party there has been criticism that re-introducing ballot box votes on citizenship applications is reverting to a procedure that it not fair.


The People's Party argues local authorities should be free to choose whether a public assembly, elected panel or voters have the final say.

Between 1999 and 2003, voters in Emmen rejected 97 applicants who met all the criteria for a Swiss passport. Most of them came originally from the former Yugoslavia.

Beat Marti, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats, confirms there was a lot of prejudice against candidates from the Balkan region at the time.

After the applications were turned down in Emmen, several complaints were lodged at the Federal Court, which later ordered the local authorities to suspend naturalisations via ballot box decisions.

Since then elected members of a special committee have dealt with citizenship applications.

The mayor of Emmen is in favour of keeping the panel even if the court ruling is overturned in a nationwide vote in June.

"The creation of a panel helped calm things down and regain the confidence of citizens," says Thomas Willi, a member of the centre-right Christian Democrats.

Local People's Party President Schwegler is not sure whether he will call for a return to the old system. "We will see. Nothing has been decided."

Deep wounds

Candidates who were turned down in March 2000 find it difficult to come to terms with the past. They maintain they have complied with all the regulations, are integrated into society, speak the local language and have no criminal record.

Marina Markovic says it was a difficult time. However, she never considered lodging a complaint or re-applying for Swiss citizenship.

"Initially I wanted to move away from Emmen because of it all. But then you have to start all over again elsewhere," says the mother of two who works as a shop assistant.

For his part, Zoran Gajic, a tailor, left Emmen to live in another town where he applied for a Swiss passport after the statutory waiting period. But Gajic is still waiting to hear from the local authorities.

"It feels like they want to con me too," he said.

Others like Janko Cvitic and his family stayed in Emmen and Swiss citizenship is no longer a priority.

Cvitic who has lived in Switzerland for the past 30 years, had no passport when he came to Emmen at the age 20.

"Now I have Croatian and Serbian nationality. I would like to go back to the region because I have a house there. But my wife is against it," he says.


The 2003 Federal Court ruling had an impact of many local authorities in the Lucerne region. They set up special panels to re-examine decisions by public assemblies which are still legal.

"The committees do a good job," says Peter Wicki a barrister who defended rejected candidates at the Federal Court.

"Most communes do not want to go back to the old system even in towns and villages where the People's Party is the strongest political group," he says.

But Social Democrat Marti is disillusioned and remains sceptical about the future.

He says in the past the centre-left often refused to acknowledge widespread public concern about immigrants.

"The myth of a multicultural society in Switzerland has been debunked. The different communities don't mix, they live side by side," he says.

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Ariane Gigon

In brief

Emmen decided to introduce secret ballot box decisions on citizenship applications in 1999 following a proposal by the far-right Swiss Democrats party.

Two other nearby towns decided against the plan. The votes took place amid a series of knife attacks in the region allegedly committed by foreigners.

A total of 163 candidates for Swiss citizenship were voted on in Emmen between 1999 and 2003 in seven separate secret ballots; 97 of them were rejected, including 85 from the former Yugoslavia.

In one vote in 2000, 48 candidates from the Balkan region, Turkey and a Polish-Dutch couple, were turned down. Only applicants from Italy were granted citizenship.

The Federal Court in 2003 approved appeals by five rejected families.

Following the court ruling a number of communes in the Lucerne region, including Emmen in 2005, decided to set up special panels dealing with citizenship applications.

The citizenship committee of Emmen is made up of three representatives of the People's Party, two members each of the Radicals and the Social Democrats and one each from the Christian Democrats and another party.

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Foreign residents must wait at least 12 years to be eligible to apply for citizenship.

Foreigners married to Swiss nationals can take advantage of a simplified procedure, reducing the number of years they have to wait.

Successful applicants must show that they are integrated into Swiss society, comply with Swiss law and pose no threat to internal or external security.

The cantonal and local authorities are responsible for naturalisation procedures.

In 2007, 45,042 applications were accepted, more than twice as many as ten years ago.

Foreign residents account for more than 20% of the population.

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