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Foreigners in Vaud flex their voting muscle

Another step towards closer integration? Keystone

Sunday’s regional voting in Vaud marks the first time thousands of foreigners in the western Swiss canton will be able to decide on matters affecting their local communes.

This content was published on February 2, 2004 - 21:11

Pro-integration campaigners hope the move will spark a nationwide trend towards giving non-Swiss a greater say in politics.

“When foreigners don’t have a voice, the political decisions taken are not as creative or representative and tend to be based on prejudices,” said Ron Halbright of the National Coalition Building Institute’s Zurich chapter.

“I hope that the change in Vaud’s legislation marks another step towards true democracy in Switzerland,” he told swissinfo.

Xenophobia

Besides Vaud, the nearby French-speaking regions of Neuchâtel and Jura are the only other cantons to grant full communal voting rights to foreigners.

Roughly one-fifth of Switzerland’s population is made up of foreigners – the vast majority of whom do not have the right to vote.

“One wishes that the German and Italian-speaking regions would learn from the French-speaking cantons,” said Halbright, himself an American who has been living in Switzerland for 13 years.

“But politics are different in Zurich, where there is a very active movement to restrict the participation of foreigners in Swiss life, especially when it comes to religious respect and recognition.”

Halbright also points to December’s cabinet election – which saw the rightwing Swiss People’s Party win an additional seat in government – as a sign of growing xenophobia in Switzerland.

“It’s clear that anti-foreigner sentiment was fanned and used as part of the move to shift politics to the Right,” Halbright said. “And the message many immigrants are getting is that they should go back where they came from.”

Citizenship

Yvan Perrin, a People’s Party parliamentarian from canton Neuchâtel, disagrees that non-Swiss are being made to feel unwelcome. But he staunchly defends his party’s position that voting rights should be tied to citizenship.

“It’s not a good idea to give foreigners the power to vote or run for office unless they go through the naturalisation process… and it is not difficult for a foreigner to become Swiss,” Perrin told swissinfo.

The standard procedure for people seeking Swiss nationality requires them to have lived in the country for at least 12 years and demonstrate familiarity with Swiss customs and traditions.

Communities and cantons can then impose their own rules, such as language and financial requirements, making naturalisation a lengthy and complicated process.

Given the strictness of the naturalisation law, non-Swiss should at least be allowed to vote in local elections, says the vice-president of the Federal Foreigners Commission, Walter Schmid.

“Many people who have lived in Switzerland for a long time do not have citizenship,” Schmid told swissinfo. “Granting voting rights is a way of ensuring the political participation of this important population.”

Integration

Rosita Fibbi of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies (SFM) agrees that granting voting rights to non-Swiss, even on a local level, is a powerful tool for fostering integration.

“If one in five people in this country have no way of expressing their wishes and needs, then we have a democratic deficit,” Fibbi said.

Research conducted by the FSM shows that foreigners identify more easily with the town they live in than with their country of residence.

And both Fibbi and Halbright argue that the more non-Swiss are given a say in local matters, the greater their commitment to their adopted community.

“If people are not included, they feel that they are not welcome and this can lead to resignation, alienation and even aggression,” explained Halbright.

Disaster

But Perrin insists that canton Neuchâtel’s experience proves that political participation has no bearing on social inclusion.

“There is no link between the two,” he said. “In Neuchâtel, foreigners do have cantonal and communal voting rights, yet integration here is a disaster.”

He points to the high number of drug-related and violent crimes committed by foreigners as evidence that voting rights do not make a difference.

“One hundred per cent of the drug dealers arrested in Neuchâtel in 2002 were foreigners and the last eight murders in the canton were committed by non-Swiss,” Perrin said.

“These people may represent just a small portion of foreigners but overall, integration here is no better than in other cantons.”

swissinfo, Anna Nelson

Key facts

Roughly 1.5 million people in Switzerland – one-fifth of the population – are foreigners.
Vaud is the third canton to grant full communal political participation to non-Swiss.
The German-speaking cantons of Graubünden and Appenzell Outer Rhodes allow individual communes to decide whether to grant voting rights to foreigners.
In neighbouring European Union countries, foreign EU residents are eligible to vote on municipal matters and to cast their ballots for members of the European Parliament.

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In brief

Under a revised constitution which came into force in January, foreigners who have lived in Switzerland for at least ten years and three years in Vaud are eligible to vote and run for office at a local level.

Some 80,000 people, or around half of the canton’s foreign population, met these criteria, bringing the total number of voters in the canton to 450,000.

But only a small portion of non-Swiss – around 11,000 – will have access to Vaud’s ballot boxes on Sunday, since local votes are being held in just 22 communes and the new legislation excludes voting on a cantonal or federal level.

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