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Voting rights campaign gains momentum

Cantons Jura and Neuchâtel already allow foreign residents to vote on local issues Keystone Archive

Moves to grant long-term foreign residents limited voting rights are growing in Switzerland.

Cantons Jura and Neuchâtel already allow foreign residents to vote on local issues, and now canton Geneva is being asked to do the same.

The “J’y vis J’y vote” campaign (I live here, I vote here) argues that long term, tax-paying foreign residents should have the right to vote on local issues in their own communities.

Part of community

“Foreign residents in Geneva share living here with us, they share the taxes, they share the community,” Philippe Cottet, spokesman for “J’y vis J’y vote”, told swissinfo.

“So we really think that since our community is based not on our passports but on our living together, they should have the same rights as we do, since they have the same duties as we do.”

Overall, Switzerland has a foreign population of around 20 per cent, three quarters of whom were either born in the country, or live here permanently.

Canton Geneva, because of its high number of international organisations, has a foreign population of 40 per cent.

Denied a voice

Discussions on how best to give the foreign population a voice are taking place in many Swiss communities, but there is reluctance, particularly in German speaking regions.

Canton Bern, for example, rejected voting rights for foreigners several years ago.

Gianni d’Amato, of the University of Neuchâtel’s Forum for Migration and Population Studies, knows better than most what it feels like to be denied a voice in the community. Although he has lived in Switzerland all his life, he is originally an Italian citizen, and only got the right to vote when he gained Swiss citizenship a few years ago.

“I was integrated into the society, I was part of my community,” he told swissinfo. “But in the public sphere I did not exist, I was invisible, and this made me feel uncomfortable sometimes.”

“It’s frustrating because you feel that although you are part of a society, your voice doesn’t count,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter what you think and what you would like to do.”

D’Amato’s feelings of frustration are exacerbated by the fact that so many ordinary aspects of life in Switzerland, from the make up of the school board to the local planning commission, are all decided on by popular vote.

Better integration

Because of this, the Federal Commission for Foreigners welcomes moves to grant local voting rights to long-term foreign residents.

“We are really very thankful for such initiatives,” said Elsbeth Steiner, spokeswoman for the Commission. “We think granting the right to vote on a cantonal level could be a very good way towards better integration of foreigners in Switzerland.”

Steiner is particularly keen that foreign residents should feel they have a role to play in their own communities.

“I know so many foreigners who have been in Switzerland for a very long time,” Steiner told swissinfo. “Especially mothers with children in school for example. And they feel set apart from the community they live in because they don’t have the right to an opinion.”

Swiss citizenship

But not everyone agrees that granting limited voting rights to foreigners is a good way to achieve integration. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party believes that those who want to vote should, like Gianni d’Amato, apply for a Swiss passport.

“The integration argument doesn’t carry a lot of weight with me,” said Luzi Stamm of the Swiss People’s Party. “The main part of integration is not whether you can vote or not, but learning to speak the language.”

“I actually think most foreigners who complain about not being able to vote have been here a long time, and could become Swiss, but for some reason they don’t want to,” Stamm told swissinfo. “So I think in these cases we can justify not granting them the vote.”

Supporters of voting rights for foreigners argue however that gaining Swiss nationality is a long and complicated process; foreigners typically have to wait 12 years before applying, and they are frequently charged fees of up to three months’ salary.

In some areas of the country they even face a series of interviews and tests by the authorities, before their application is submitted to a popular vote, where it can still be rejected.

The Swiss government is currently supporting legislation to make it easier to gain Swiss citizenship, but the Swiss People’s Party opposes these moves as well.

“The rules we have right now are the correct ones,” said Stamm. “To have to be 12 years in Switzerland before applying for citizenship – to me that’s short enough.”

Undermining democracy?

But supporters of extending the vote to foreign residents argue that Switzerland’s democratic system is weakened by its exclusivity.

“If you are talking about the democratic legitimization of Swiss society,” said D’Amato, “then it’s not comparable to other European countries, which have extended voting rights to those living within their borders.”

“There is a rather republican concept of nationhood in Switzerland,” D’Amato continued, “which means that citizenship confers certain privileges. The problem is that these privileges have become so highly respected that some Swiss feel they will lose out if they offer them to foreign residents.”

Nevertheless, Philippe Cottet of the “J’y vis J’y vote” campaign hopes that the Geneva initiative will encourage similar moves across the country.

“We want to show that true democracy is based on participating in the community, not on what kind of passport you have,” he said. “So although we know things will go slowly, we hope that our message will be heard across the country.”

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

The right to vote in Switzerland is typically granted only to Swiss citizens. Two exceptions are cantons Jura and Neuchâtel, where foreigners with permanent residency rights can vote on local issues.

Twenty per cent of Switzerland’s population is foreign. Three quarters of the foreigners were either born in Switzerland, or are long term residents.

Acquiring Swiss citizenship is a long, complicated, and often expensive process. Foreigners have to live in Switzerland for 12 years before they can apply. Some communities require candidates to undergo a series of tests and interviews before submitting their applications to a popular vote.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR