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Emmen again under the spotlight in nationality vote

The applicants faced the people of Emmen at a People's Party meeting Keystone Archive

Voters in the small town of Emmen, canton Lucerne, sparked international interest last year after a controversial decision to reject a group of applicants seeking Swiss nationality. On Sunday, they have the opportunity to answer their critics.

This content was published on June 8, 2001 - 10:31

The people of Emmen are voting on whether to give 22 long-term foreign residents Swiss nationality. The issue of nationality is decided at community level right across Switzerland, but Emmen is one of the few towns to put it to a secret ballot.

In most places applications for Swiss citizenship are decided by an elected nationality committee, and then submitted to the town council for approval.

Although in theory the Emmen way of voting looks to be the most democratic procedure, critics say that in practice the secret ballot simply allows disenchanted Swiss voters to express their prejudices.

When Emmen held a nationality vote last year, only eight out of 56 applications were approved, and no one from the Balkans was accepted. The 56 applicants had, however, satisfied all of Switzerland's legal requirements for nationality, including length of residence in the country, and competence in the local language.

The case placed Emmen in the headlines both inside and outside Switzerland, with its voters being accused of racism.

This time the town council wants to present Emmen in a more positive light: by only putting 22 individuals up for citizenship approval, all of whom have been thoroughly scrutinised by Emmen's nationality committee. Officials hope all the applications will be approved, including those from people of Balkan origin.

But the attempt to restore the town's standing doesn't seem to be working. The brochure listing applicants' particulars, which attracted so much criticism last year, has been circulated to voters again. It contains pictures of the applicants, their ages, jobs, hobbies, and their reasons for wanting to become Swiss.

In addition the candidates have been invited to open meetings organised by local political parties. At a meeting held by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, they were placed on a stage and asked questions such as "who would you support in an international football match, Switzerland or Yugoslavia?" and "which language do you dream in?"

Although the meetings were supposedly voluntary, many candidates chose to attend - and with good reason. After its meeting, the Swiss People's Party took out an advertisement in the local paper listing the names of the people who had turned up, and backing their nationality applications. Beneath, it helpfully provided the names of those candidates who did not attend, this time with no comment.

It is exactly this sort of incident, which leads critics to accuse Emmen voters of racism. And unless all 22 applicants for nationality are approved on Sunday, that criticism will not go away.

by Imogen Foulkes

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