One year ahead of parliamentary elections, the main political parties have turned their attention to the growing community of the Swiss living around the world. Their voter potential is considerable and is being tapped into in different ways.
When the right to vote by post was introduced in 1992, there were about 14,000 members of the Swiss Abroad community who had registered with the authorities showing an active interest in votes and elections.
More than a decade later, that figure has risen to more than 155,000 and in theory equals the number of voters in a medium-sized constituency.
“The Swiss Abroad community is quite considerable and continues to increase. It has an interesting potential both for votes and elections,” says Thomas Jauch, spokesman for the centre-right Christian Democratic Party.
But only three of the major parties have developed special activities abroad, the conservative right Swiss People’s Party in particular.
“From about 100 members seven years ago, our international chapter has increased to about 400,” says Miriam Gurtner. “We have groups in Spain, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast and South Africa. We will also launch chapters in the United States and in Liechtenstein.”
For its part, the Social Democratic Party says its international group has about 100 members. The leftwing party recently set up five outposts in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires.
“Our goal is to try and extend our search for new members on a broader basis among the Swiss community,” says Walter Suter, chairman of the party’s international chapter.
The centre-right Radical Party has about 120 members. “Our numbers continue to increase. We have about 20 new members every year,” chairman François Baur says.
Three other parties, - the Christian Democrats, the Greens and the centre-right Conservative Democrats - argue setting up international chapters would be too costly. But the concerns of the Swiss diaspora are not being ignored, they argue .“In our Christian Democratic Party leadership there is one member who is dedicated to Swiss Abroad issues,” says spokesman Jauch.
Web, but not only
With a view to the October 2015 parliamentary elections, the political parties are putting the finishing touches to their platforms and strategies to win support in the Swiss diaspora.
It’s safe to say that social media and the internet in general, but also conventional paperwork sent out by post, will play a major part in the election campaign. But neither digital nor postal communication can replace the direct contact with citizens as Caroline Brennecke, a coordinator for the Conservative Democratic Party, says.
“We will be present for the first time at next year’s Swiss Abroad Congress in Geneva.”
Christian Democrat Jauch for his part says that parliamentarians regularly bring up Swiss expat issues in meetings or social events with ambassadors, Swiss clubs and associations abroad.
Some parties plan to put members of the Swiss Abroad community on their electoral lists, a strategy increasingly popular to win votes among the expats around the world.
At the last parliamentary elections there were 81 Swiss candidates living outside the country. The figure was up from 44 and 17 in 2007 and 2003 respectively. Back in 1999 there was a single Swiss Abroad candidate.
The increase comes although candidates have zero chances of winning a seat as they must stand in a constituency in Switzerland, that is, one of the country’s 26 cantons.
The electoral rules make campaigning for expats very difficult.
“It did not stop some of the candidates from scoring respectable results in the past,” says People’s Party official Gurtner. The conservative right party fielded nearly 50 Swiss expatriates for the 2011 elections.
Miriam Behrens, secretary general of the Green Party, sees political potential in candidates in cross-border regions, as tested in Geneva for the 2011 elections. “It is most certainly a good option to boost cooperation with the Greens in neighbouring France. Our campaign against the exploitation of shale gas can benefit from it,” she says.
Faced with a shortage of suitable expat candidates in 2011, the Radical Party in Zurich opted for yet another avenue to win expat votes. “We chose about ten candidates living in Switzerland who had shown special commitment to the cause of the Swiss expat to give their campaigns a boost,” says party official Baur.
So far, Swiss Abroad voters have never had a decisive impact on the overall result of a parliamentary election.
Nevertheless, Ariane Rustichelli, co-director of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), points out that in some individual cases winning votes among the Swiss expats “might make a difference”.
Her observation is backed up by the Social Democrats. They held on to their third seat in Geneva in a previous election thanks to about 500 votes from the party’s list of Swiss Abroad candidates.
“Every vote counts in an electoral system with proportional representation like in Switzerland,” says Social Democrat Suter.
Law, consulates, e-vote
Rustichelli says an expat candidature is first of all an opportunity to promote one’s one name, but also to attract attention to special issues close to the heart of the Swiss diaspora.
Looking back over the past three years, the push for specific interests of the diaspora appears to have been successful.
Parliament consolidated the status of the Swiss abroad community in September, approving the creation of a special law on expatriate matters. It was one of the key demands in the 2011 election manifesto of the OSA.
Rustichelli also points out that most Swiss expats – albeit not all as was the stated aim of the organisation - will be able to use e-voting in next October’s parliamentary elections.
Some progress has been made in the uphill battle against the foreign ministry’s plan to streamline the network of Swiss consulates around the world.
“Parliamentary opposition against the closure of consulates was successful in about every other case,” Rustichelli says.
However, the Swiss diaspora is still waiting for government to address the plight of many Swiss who can no longer have an account with a Swiss bank as a result of the offensive by the United States government against suspected tax cheats following the 2008 financial crisis.
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