Swiss citizens living across the world still have the right to decide on national – and in some cases local and cantonal – issues. One critic asks whether it is time for stricter rules.
Political consultant Claudio Kusterexternal link is the man who instigated the latest debate about voting rights for Swiss expatriates. He was also one of the driving forces behind a people’s initiative aimed at capping managers’ salaries, approved by Swiss voters in 2013.
His latest campaign challenging the suffrage of Swiss citizens living abroad has triggered plenty of opposition. He tells swissinfo.ch about his motivations.
swissinfo.ch: Are you simply trying to provoke a debate?
Claudio Kuster: I can understand the negative reaction from those affected directly. Perhaps I broke a taboo. Because, at first glance, it is as if somebody was calling to abolish suffrage for women.
However, I regularly won support for my demand when I explained to people that Swiss citizens who live abroad and have never been to Switzerland – and even their children – have a right to vote here.
swissinfo.ch: How did you come upon this topic?
C.K.: I began researching the subject as part of my work as political secretary of Senator Thomas Minder.
A while ago, parliament discussed a proposal on whether the national government should be mandated to set legal rules for the cantons. This was about the application of certain principles. Such as, who should be concerned? Does it matter where the people concerned live? Should it be possible to have more than one nationality?
Behind these theoretical political queries, however, there are ultimately fundamental questions for a democracy. Who can be a citizen and who can’t? Who should have the right to vote and who shouldn’t?
swissinfo.ch: Why do you focus on restricting rights for national votes?
C.K.: You may have a point arguing that Swiss citizens who have been living abroad for several years – an expat, a student – can still have close Iinks with their country of origin.
Political developments in this country have an impact on him or her, and one day they may come back to Switzerland.
But how close are those ties with Flurlingen [a Swiss municipality] he or she left years ago? It’s utterly absurd to think that a Swiss living in Berlin should have a say on the construction of a school gym in a small village in Canton Zurich.
What’s more, he or she might never have lived in Flurlingen. The Swiss system gives you a choice between a former place of residence and the municipality which used to be the hometown of your family in the 19th century. Personally, you may never have even lived there.
swissinfo.ch: Indeed, 14 of the 26 cantons, mainly in eastern Switzerland, already rule out the participation of expats in cantonal decisions. Critics say this is not fair. Because you always remain tied to Schaffhausen even if you emigrate to Japan for instance, don’t you?
C.K.: I disagree. I’d be primarily Swiss in Japan. But my point is another one, namely how can I make sure to get information on local votes and elections?
For nationwide issues I can consult for instance swissinfo.ch, the Swiss Review or online media.
But how can a candidate for a cantonal government or a referendum committee reach out to Swiss expatriates? In other words, how can I ensure that Senator Minder can address the Swiss living in Thailand, Brazil or Canada?
This is not possible now. I can’t even have access to the addresses of citizens in Schaffhausen.
swissinfo.ch: Do you see any sign of things changing on this matter?
C.K.: I think the problem isn’t big enough to launch a people’s initiative. The Swiss People’s Party gives priority to plans aimed at ruling out the possibility of having multiple nationalities.
This could mean that people who haven’t been living in Switzerland might lose their Swiss passport.
It is also important to see that voting rights for Swiss expats have come under pressure in at least several cantons. Zug and Aarau are reforming their laws on direct democracy, or they are at least discussing the idea.
Until now there was simply a tacit agreement about it. But scepticism among the established parties in Zug is growing, and I expect the same to happen in Aargau.
swissinfo.ch: So, you feel vindicated?
C.K.: My conclusion is simple. Voting rights for Swiss expatriates, but with temporary restrictions.
You no longer are a temporary emigrant if you have lived abroad for five or ten years at most.
By that time, you might take part in politics there, but no longer in Switzerland.
The exact time limit may be something to be discussed further. But keeping voting rights in Switzerland forever? Please, no.
It wouldn’t be much different from the rules in other countries that grant suffrage to their expat community.
swissinfo.ch: But citizens in other countries don’t have as many votes and elections as in Switzerland. Should we not be proud of our broad democratic participation?
C.K.: Sure, but our system is not perfect. The right was introduced without considering in depth how to implement it.
Up until the 1980s, Swiss expats could only cast their ballots if they happened to be in the country, because during the Cold War period, the authorities tried to avoid any kind of interference in internal maters from outside Switzerland, and vice versa. Voting by postal mail was only introduced later.
Adapted from German by Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch