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Foreigners gain greater say over Swiss affairs

Neuchâtel is a pioneer in Switzerland in allowing foreigners a say on local issues Keystone

Foreigners can now stand for political office at communal level in three western cantons.

This content was published on June 17, 2007 - 18:48

On Sunday voters in canton Neuchâtel approved extending the right to foreign nationals. But in neighbouring canton Jura the proposal was narrowly rejected.

Neuchâtel joins Vaud and Fribourg as one of the few Swiss cantons where foreigners can stand for election as a local member of parliament or government.

But Neuchâtel voters drew the line at granting foreigners the right to stand for political office at the cantonal level.

While the Neuchâtel communal decision was fairly in line with predictions, observers were surprised by the rejection by Jura voters, where foreigners already enjoy relatively broad rights.

Neuchâtel is an exception, not only in Switzerland, but also in Europe generally. Foreigners have enjoyed voting rights at communal level since the 19th century and at the cantonal level since 2000.

Since the creation of canton Jura in 1979, foreigners have been able to vote on both local and cantonal issues and, since 2000, they can also be elected to local legislatures in certain communes.

Sunday's vote concerned 4,200 foreigners living in the canton – or 7.9 per cent of the electorate.

The revision of the law on political rights met considerable resistance from an inter-party committee, initiated by the rightwing Swiss People's Party, which argued that foreigners should be naturalised if they wish to hold political posts at the communal level.

Cost of naturalisation

Elsewhere on Sunday, in canton Aargau voters decided in favour of a new regulation standardising naturalisation taxes, ensuring that the cost doesn't exceed administrative costs. The new law stipulates that young people or those on low incomes can benefit from a reduction in the cost of becoming Swiss.

The decision is a defeat for the Swiss People's Party, which had campaigned alone against what it called "free" naturalisations. The party said anyone who wished to become a Swiss citizen should make the effort to pay.

The idea is slowly gaining ground that non-Swiss should be allowed a say, at least on local issues. Foreign residents now have certain civic rights in nine of Switzerland's 26 cantons.

In German-speaking Switzerland the situation is less favourable for foreigners. Between 1995 and 2005, Appenzell Outer Rhodes, Graubünden, Basel City and Solothurn left it up to each commune to decide whether to give foreign residents voting rights. Meanwhile, in cantons Bern and Zurich similar proposals have been rejected.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Foreigners who have been resident for a certain number of years are entitled to vote in local elections in cantons Neuchâtel, Jura, Fribourg, Vaud and Geneva.
In Neuchâtel and Jura they can also vote on cantonal issues.
In Neuchâtel, Fribourg and Vaud foreigners can stand in local communal elections.
The situation is very different in German-speaking Switzerland, where only a handful of communes in Appenzell Outer Rhodes, Basel City and Graubünden allow foreigners to vote.
In European Union countries, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty granted citizens from other EU states the right to vote and run for office in local and European elections.
In national law, the situation regarding non-EU citizens varies from one country to another.
Some EU states, including Portugal, grant voting rights to citizens of other countries, but only if such rights are reciprocated.

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