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Political participation Foreigner’s rights: Bern’s gesture of limited impact

The road leading to Bern's local parliament remains narrow for foreign residents 


It may become easier for non-Swiss residents in Bern to voice their concerns in local politics but whether the idea of a special rights for foreigners will spread across the country remains to be seen.

The nearly 60% approval rate for increased political participation of foreigners in Bern’s city parliament in Sunday’s vote made many leftwing proponents happy.

Cristina Anliker-Mansour, who had launched the idea, told the media she was “overjoyed”. and Bern’s mayor, Alexander Tschäppät, joined in with his political appreciation.

He hopes the result from the local vote will shine beyond the boundaries of the capital with its about 140,000 residents, including those 33,000 without a Swiss passport.

At the same time he downplays the importance of the vote result.

“Nothing much will change in principle,” he is quoted as saying. It is merely a nice gesture for those who work here and therefore should also have a say, he continues.

Whether his statements are only an expression of a seasoned politician or whether they are meant to appease rightwing opponents in Bern is unclear.

As a leading member of the local chapter of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party, Erich Hess, will mount a legal challenge of the vote.

“It contravenes both cantonal and municipal rights,” Hess argues.

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.

end of infobox

The so-called participation motion allows adult foreigners with unrestricted and temporary resident rights and those with an F permit (provisionally accepted) to submit formal proposals to Bern’s local parliament.

On the condition that they have collected at least 200 signatures from other foreigners residing Bern for their demand.


Bern is at the forefront with the participation motion, but not the first commune to introduce the system. Burgdorf, a nearby town with about 15,000 inhabitants in the Emmental region, broke the ice in 2008. But so far no one has made use of the option.

Regardless the Young Socialists in canton Bern did not even wait for the outcome of Sunday’s ballot.

The party announced it would try to push ahead with this form of political participation in other towns around the capital, hoping to find support among more urban, progressive citizens in a region which is known for its conservative and traditional political views.

Unsurprisingly, the cantonal chapters of both the leftwing Social Democratic Party and the Greens have welcomed Sunday’s result in Bern city. But neither of them has plans to put the foreigner motion on the political agenda nationwide.

“Such a political instrument makes sense at a local level primarily,” says Michael Sorg, spokesman for the Social Democratic Party.

He adds that a move at a national level would have very little chance of winning approval at the ballot box.


Still, there is a lot to be said about this form of participatory right, according to social anthropologist and integration expert Christin Achermann.

“It does make sense to give foreigners the right to feed their demands into the political process if it is agreed that democratic rights are granted beyond the circle of Swiss citizens,” said the assistant professor at the University of Neuchâtel.

She says the motion is also an appeal for foreigners to get involved.

“The foreigner motion is a tool that could be broadly accepted,” Achermann says but it is too early to say whether the instrument will help boost integration. “It might be possible to answer the question in ten years.”

She says issues of unemployment, dependence on welfare, low professional skills and discrimination among foreigners can’t be solved by introducing the motion. “But it can help promote a dialogue and make foreigners feel welcome, making them visible politically for the Swiss population in the city.”

Political rights

Political rights for non-Swiss residents are not granted easily.

Only a small number of cantons, mostly in the French-speaking part of the country, give foreigners the opportunity to take part in votes and elections. In some cases they can even hold a political office. (See infobox)

The alternative option for foreigners is to seek Swiss citizenship. But critics say the procedure is long and complicated.

Unlike, for instance, the United States or to a certain extent Britain, a baby born on Swiss soil does not automatically qualify for Swiss citizenship.

Moves are underway in parliament to facilitate the procedure for those whose grandparents were immigrants.

Swiss voters would have the final say on a possible amendment of the constitution. In 2004 they rejected a proposal to grant second and third generation foreigners citizenship automatically.

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