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Switzerland – a two-tier democracy

Switzerland has a much-praised democracy, even if it has only been a real democracy since 1971, when men said yes to allowing women to vote. By contrast, foreigners, who make up a quarter of the 8.6 million people in Switzerland, still have no political rights at national level.

Foreign residents pay taxes, pension and unemployment insurance contributions, and their consumption keeps the domestic economy going. However, because they have no political rights, a quarter of the population in Switzerland lives as second-class citizens.

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Käse als Berge dargestellt

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Switzerland is three-quarters of a democracy

This content was published on Just three out of four people in Switzerland have a Swiss passport, meaning that a quarter of taxpaying residents have no political voice.

Read more: Switzerland is three-quarters of a democracy

One of them is Paola Palmieri. “I was born here in Basel in 1977. The date of entry on my identity card is my date of birth. I graduated from school here and I am at home in Switzerland,” says Palmieri.

But she is only allowed to have a say in Italian politics, where her parents come from. Because in Switzerland, political rights are linked to citizenship.

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Foreigner voting rights

Only Swiss citizens can vote and stand for election nationally. But in some cantons and municipalities, foreigners have certain political rights.

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At cantonal level the situation is somewhat different: two of Switzerland’s 26 cantons – Neuchâtel and Jura – allow foreigners to vote during cantonal elections.

In five cantons, foreigners get to vote at communal level (i.e. towns and villages – the third tier of administration in Switzerland). In addition to Jura and Neuchâtel, these are Fribourg, Vaud and Geneva. In terms of voting rights for foreigners, it seems, there is a gulf between French and German-speaking Switzerland.

That said, Appenzell Outer-Rhodes, Basel-City and Graubünden are three German-speaking cantons which allow their communes give voting rights at the local level, if they wish.

In total, foreigners can participate politically in some 600 of the 2,202 communes in Switzerland.

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The right of foreigners to vote on national issues or at national elections appears a very distant prospect. “No red passport, no say” is the position of the centre-right majority. “Swiss citizenship must not be free, it’s only available at a price. And that is naturalisation,” says Thomas Burgherr, parliamentarian for the right-wing conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP).

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‘Voting rights in Switzerland can’t be free’

This content was published on “Swiss living abroad are also foreigners in their countries of residency. They often have a firm view of what’s happening in Switzerland, and at the same time they take part in political life in their adopted countries,” Walter Leimgruber, President of the Federal Migration Commission, pointed out at a recent event. Leimgruber’s conclusion is that…

Read more: ‘Voting rights in Switzerland can’t be free’

Pragmatists therefore focus their efforts at the communal level. One such figure is Joachim Blatter, professor of political science at the University of Lucerne. He wants voting rights given to everyone who has lived in a municipality for five years, arguing that Switzerland excludes more people from the democratic system than most other European countries.

Blatter is part of a new dynamic that is a growing force, particularly in cities such as Zurich and Basel. But foreigners’ right to vote is also an issue in some mountain regions – for example in St Moritz.

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