Expats enter long-distance election race

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What drives Swiss expatriates living in the English-speaking world to stand in October's elections to the federal parliament?

This content was published on August 20, 2007 - 16:58

The motives could not be more different, as swissinfo learned from three members of the Swiss Abroad community at a congress last weekend in Geneva.

In his polo shirt, and with his white shock of hair and distinctive Swiss-German dialect of Schaffhausen, Edgar Studer is somehow a typical Swiss if appearances are anything to go by.

The retired welfare officer moved to the southern British town of Finchampstead ten years ago, but he still prefers his native language.

His ambition is to help his rightwing Swiss People's Party to win an extra seat in parliament, but he has no illusions when it comes to his chances. The 67-year-old Studer considers the poll as a way of squaring accounts with political rivals.

"I hope we can defeat the Social Democrats," he says with a chuckle.

Roughly the same age, Ron Favarger is also officially on the People's Party list of candidates. But he has a very different story and it might take you a while to work out his nationality, if it were not for a special pin on his shirt.

"I always wear my Swiss-Canadian pin. I have about 50 of them and I take every opportunity to promote Switzerland," he says.

Egypt and Canada

Favarger, a descendant of the Geneva chocolate factory founder of the same name, has never lived in Switzerland for any length of time. He grew up in Egypt and moved to Canada as a teenager.

He doesn't seem to mind that the current electoral system virtually excludes Swiss living abroad gaining a seat in the federal parliament in Bern. It is difficult for them to campaign in their homeland and no seats are set aside for the expatriate community.

"Being Swiss has given me a lot. I saw this as an opportunity to return something to the community," says the Toronto resident.

He says he was debating whether to get involved in politics at all, because he can't help noticing that politicking involves a lot of posturing and intimidating.

Business like

There is a business-like air surrounding Helen Freiermuth who has lived over the past 12 years in both Shanghai and the United States. It's almost as if she was personifying the party which she represents – the business-orientated Radicals of Zurich.

On her campaign leaflet and website she neatly lists her political priorities, ranging from education and integration to Switzerland's role on the international stage.

"I hope to be elected but the world will keep turning if I'm not," the former schoolteacher says. She was active in local politics before she moved abroad with her family.

Neither Freiermuth nor her two fellow Swiss abroad have a clear answer to the question whether electoral reform is necessary to ensure the interests of the Swiss abroad are represented in parliament.

She admits that she is undecided, while Studer – who says he admires people who speak their minds - dithers before he says: "Guaranteed seats might be a good idea, but I can't quite see it becoming reality."

Favarger would like to see parties encouraging people abroad to run in elections and giving support - but only to those candidates who need it.

It comes as no surprise that they are all critical of the cuts in government subsidies to Swiss schools abroad over the past four years.

School reputation

"Swiss schools have always had a terrific reputation overseas. Well-to-do people required to pay tuition fees for their children considered it an honour to be associated with a Swiss," says Favarger, who speaks of personal experience since he went to the Swiss school in Egypt.

The statement is echoed by Freiermuth and Studer.

"Swiss schools help foster contacts across the world. Students are encouraged to learn about other cultures and keep up their own traditions," says Studer.

The three share common concerns about their homeland. While Freiermuth is adamant that Switzerland shouldn't lose its competitive edge, her expatriate colleagues have noticed that the Swiss have a tendency to "play the good Samaritan", opening their system to abuse by people claiming welfare money.

This goes against Favarger's deepest conviction of mutual respect, fairness, and personal responsibility.

"What goes around, comes around," he says, repeating a popular saying, as he likes to do.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

In brief

More than 40 Swiss abroad candidates are standing in the October 21 parliamentary elections.

Ruedi Baumann and his wife Stefanie, who live in France, were the first Swiss expatriates to sit in the federal parliament between 2001 and 2003. But at the time of their re-election in 1999 they still lived in Switzerland.

Most Swiss abroad live in neighbouring France, Germany and France.

At the end of last year there were 645,000 Swiss living abroad, compared with 7.5 million residents in Switzerland.

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Swiss abroad:

Almost a third of them are based in the EU, mostly in France (171,732), Germany (72,384) and Italy (47,012).

Elsewhere in the world, 71,984 Swiss live in the US, 36,374 in Canada, 21,291 in Australia, 15,061 in Argentina, 13,956 in Brazil, 12,011 in Israel and 8,821 in South Africa.

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