Expats seek bigger role on political stage

Switzerland's growing expatriate community has helped increase the importance of the Swiss abroad, but their political impact remains difficult to quantify.

This content was published on June 20, 2007 minutes

The swift introduction of electronic voting is crucial to boost their participation in votes and elections, according to the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).

The figures for registered expatriates voters are impressive. They soared from 12,000 to more than 110,000 over the past 15 years and there are no signs of a slowdown.

"The impact of the Swiss abroad is continuing to grow and the political parties consider expatriates an important factor in decision-making," said OSA director Rudolf Wyder.

The pattern of emigration has changed radically over the past three decades, he explained, with Swiss people becoming more mobile and going abroad to study, work or simply travel.

"As a result many of them want to maintain their ties with Switzerland and have registered as voters," Wyder said.

Swiss abroad clubs and groups have stepped up an information campaign to promote active participation in Switzerland's political life.

For its part, the OSA – a platform for around 650,000 Swiss expatriates - launched a forum for regular contacts with parliamentarians two-and-a-half years ago.

"The group is made up of more than 80 parliamentarians. It is a very useful communication network which gives the Swiss abroad – perhaps indirectly – access to the federal parliament," said Wyder.

Political muscle

But gauging the political influence of the Swiss abroad is not that straightforward. They were granted the right to take part in federal ballots via mail in 1992, but for historical reasons their vote is registered at the local level – often in the Swiss town where they used to live – but not published separately.

Given that some of the more than 2,700 Swiss communes are made up of a very limited number of citizens, it would be easy to identify individual ballot sheets.

"It would be in breach of the citizen's right to a secret ballot," says Hans-Urs Willi of the Federal Chancellery.

But earlier this year parliament decided that all of the country's 26 cantons should collect the data in a central register.

A survey carried out four years ago gave an indication of the political preferences of the Swiss abroad: leaning towards the centre-left, generally more open towards the world and more liberal-minded than the average Swiss.

"I don't think there has been a major change in the pattern since 2003," said political analyst Claude Longchamp. His observation is borne out by a handful of cantonal statistics.

Whether the Swiss abroad can really tip the scales in ballots remains uncertain. It is widely believed their support helped bring down a 2002 vote to tighten asylum policy. But there is no proof of this.

"The Swiss abroad admittedly have considerable potential, but their vote is spread across all cantons and therefore loses impact," said political analyst Wolf Linder from Bern University.

Seat in parliament

At the moment there are no expatriates representing their community in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but the Social Democrats recently became the latest party to make a new attempt to give the Swiss abroad a voice.

They called for the creation of separate constituency for the Swiss abroad – also known as the 27th canton - which would guarantee seats in parliament, similar to other countries.

Both Wyder and Linder are sceptical, saying the idea is interesting but not politically viable because it could stir up trouble with other groups.

"But the proposal makes us realise that we must do more to give the Swiss abroad the influence they deserve," said Wyder.

He points out efforts to boost individual participation in votes and elections and continued lobbying as part of the country's political system.

The OSA would like political parties to step up their campaigns for citizens abroad and set up special lists to encourage expatriates to stand as candidates in the forthcoming elections.

High on the agenda for the Swiss abroad community is the possibility to vote via email. Wyder is outraged that the federal authorities appear in no particular hurry to speed up the introduction of e-voting.

"The council of the Swiss Abroad wants e-voting to be introduced by 2011 at the latest," he said.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

645,010 Swiss lived abroad in 2006 (+1.7% on 2005 and +11.1% since 2000).
111,249 of the 494,802 expatriates aged over 18 - or 22.5% - have registered to vote.
Since 1992 Swiss abroad have the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.
There is currently no Swiss expatriate in parliament.

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In brief

Main Swiss abroad communities: 390,182 in EU countries, mainly in neighbouring France (171,732), Germany (72,384) and Italy (47,012).

Swiss abroad communities in other parts of the world: US (71,984), Canada (36,374), Australia (21,291), Argentina (15,061), Brazil (13,956), Israel (12,011) and South Africa (8,821).

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