Expatriates feel sidelined by Swiss politicians

Rudolf Wyder says the Swiss Abroad feel neglected by parliament and the government ASO

The number of Swiss expatriates taking part in the political decision-making process, notably votes and elections – has increased tenfold over the past two decades.

This content was published on April 17, 2011

Despite the rising interest, Rudolf Wyder, director of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), says the importance of the expat community is not appreciated sufficiently.

Back in 1992 when the vote by postal service was introduced, about 14,000 Swiss living abroad took part in ballots. But since then participation has increased steadily. At the end of last year 135,877 Swiss citizens had registered with the authorities – up 4.5 per cent on the previous year.

It is widely expected that the figure will reach a new record for the parliamentary election next October.

But while the interest of the expat community in Swiss politics appears to grow unabated their voice is still not being heard. More needs to be done by parliament and the government to acknowledge the value of expatriates for Switzerland, says Wyder. What are the reasons for the growing interest of the Swiss abroad in domestic politics?

Rudolf Wyder: Taking part in elections and votes is part of their national identity for many Swiss expatriates. Historically the Swiss abroad have enjoyed extensive political rights and they value these highly and attach importance to them.

The high rate of political participation of the expat community is also a result of growing international mobility. In the past many Swiss emigrated in search of a better life and left the country for good. Whereas today a large number of people go abroad for a limited period of time, for work or studies or other reasons.

The Swiss are highly mobile and many move easily between Switzerland and other countries. People constantly leave and come back. This also explains the interest of expatriates to keep up with politics at home. There’s been a remarkable increase in the number of Swiss expats listed in vote registers over the past few years. When will the figure hit a peak?

R.W.: Difficult to say. When the vote by postal mail was introduced nearly 20 years ago we expected an increase of up to 30,000 registered voters. Today the figure has passed the 135,000 mark.

A further strong increase is foreseeable with the introduction of online voting, something we have been waiting for over many years.

Many Swiss expatriates cannot exercise their political rights because the official information, sent by post, does not arrive at their homes in time or the ballot papers reach the chancelleries too late for the vote count.

The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad will pursue its campaign to encourage expatriates to participate in ballots. It is the only way to push the government and parliament to take into account the rights of Swiss living across the world. They make up about ten per cent of the resident Swiss population. How many of the more than 135,000 registered Swiss expats actually do take part in votes and elections?

R.W.: Participation by the Swiss abroad is by and large similar to that of those living in Switzerland. Turnout varies according to the issue at stake. Subject matters close to the heart of many expatriates - such as a vote on Swiss membership of the United Nations, or a labour accord with the European Union for instance – result in a higher turnout among expats than among citizens in Switzerland. How do the Swiss abroad and domestic voters differ on political decisions?

R.W.: Sometimes the political preference of the Swiss expatriate is different from that of their fellow countrymen at home. Generally speaking the Swiss abroad vote more like the urban population and those living in the country’s border regions. They seem to share an awareness of international topics. Their vote also shows a certain openness towards the world I think. Has the vote of the Swiss expatriate community ever been decisive for the overall result in a ballot?

R.W.: There are at least two known cases in the past ten years where the expat vote most likely played the decisive role. Notably in 2002 when a proposal to tighten the asylum law was narrowly rejected in a nationwide vote.

Also in 2009 when the Swiss approved the introduction of biometric passports with a margin of fewer than 5,600 votes and with massive support from the Swiss expatriate community. Do parliament and the government acknowledge enough the importance of the expat community?

R.W.: The Swiss abroad play a greater role on the political stage today than they used to some 20 years ago. But their voice is still not heard enough at a federal level. A case in point is a decision taken by parliament to reduce funding for the Swiss Review magazine.

Many politicians still appear to be unaware of the wealth of experience and know-how the expat community can offer and which is of great benefit to Switzerland. Our country would be worse off both economically and in cultural matters if it could not count on an international network of the Swiss living in all corners of the world.

The government recognised this in a report published last year. But the document also proves that there is no coherent and coordinated federal policy on the Swiss abroad. What is missing is a clear legal basis. At the moment too many federal offices in various ministries are involved in administering expat issues.

Political rights

Registered Swiss expatriates can take part in nationwide votes and elections since 1977.

In 1992 registered Swiss expats were granted the right to vote by postal mail.

Swiss expatriates are taking part in trials with electronic voting underway since 2005.

To be able to take part in ballots, an expat has to register with the Swiss authorities. The vote counts for the commune she/he lived in before leaving the country; alternatively it is the commune the family originally hails from.

Parliament is set to approve an easing of the registration procedure by October 2011.

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Swiss Abroad

More than 695,000 Swiss citizens live abroad, about 10% of the total Swiss population, according to official data from December 2010.

Founded in 1916 the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad represents the interests of the expatriate community and is considered its official voice.

The Council of the Swiss Abroad is an assembly of 140 delegates from Swiss expatriates' associations as well as representatives of institutions and from the Swiss public sphere. As a rule they meet twice a year.

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