‘The anger of the Swiss Abroad has to be taken seriously’

Ariane Rustichelli, speaking in Montreux at the OSA congress in August. Adrian Moser

No e-vote option, no successful candidate, a lower turnout rate – the recent parliamentary elections were not a success for the expatriate Swiss community. Ariane Rustichelli, director of the Organisation of Swiss Abroad (OSA), calls for a revival of online voting.

This content was published on October 23, 2019 - 14:38

It was a disappointing outcome on Sunday for the expat Swiss community, which didn’t manage to get a candidate elected to the national parliament as it did in 2015, when ex-ambassador to Germany Tim Guldimann took a seat before resigning less than three years later.

A total of 73 expatriate Swiss ran for seats in the parliamentary elections on October 20, but none were elected. Fifty-two of them live in Europe, three in North America, eight in Africa. Five each are registered in an Asian or South American country. Most represent either the left-wing Social Democratic Party or the right-wing Swiss People's Party. 

Moreover, without an e-vote option – trials to introduce such a system were suspended by authorities earlier this year – the Swiss Abroad also voted in fewer numbers than four years ago. Canton Geneva, for example, saw a drop in Swiss Abroad voters from 32% to 21%.

Ariane Rustichelli, the OSA’s director, discussed the elections with This year, no Swiss Abroad candidates were elected. Why?

Ariane Rustichelli: Tim Guldimann brought a certain prestige from his previous role as an ambassador and was an exception. He was often seen in the media and was well-known in his home canton of Zurich – essential for getting elected. This year, no candidates were well-known enough to pull in enough votes. People tend to elect candidates who they have heard speaking, or else to vote directly for a party. Is it foreseeable that a candidate living abroad could be elected in future?

A.R.: I hope so. Having such a person in parliament who could speak directly about the difficulties faced by the Swiss Abroad community was a good thing. And with the ongoing development of new technology and the growth of new media, I could imagine that after another couple of elections, it will be even easier to run a campaign from afar. When he stepped down, Guldimann said it had been “difficult to live in one place and do politics in another”. Is it possible to properly fulfil parliamentary duties while living abroad?

A.R.: There are definitely constraints that come with this situation, but there are also ways to make it easier. For example, committee sessions in parliament, which involve about 15 people, could be done by video-conference. At the OSA, we already do this for our committee meetings, since the majority of members live abroad. On the other hand, this system would be difficult to put in place for full parliamentary sessions. The turnout rate of the Swiss Abroad was less than in 2015 in almost all cantons where figures are available. How do you explain this?

A.R.: In my opinion, there are three reasons for this. The first is clearly the lack of an e-voting option. In 2015, e-voting was available in four cantons – regions where the Swiss Abroad turnout rate this time was dramatically lower. The possibility of online voting therefore has a direct influence on turnout rate.

There is also a sense of demoralisation around the issue of e-voting. The first tests were done in 2003, by 2015 there were three separate online voting systems available, now there are none. We are moving backwards.

Finally, the election campaign itself was quite unemotional. Apart from climate change, there was no specific issue around which the Swiss Abroad might have felt the need to mobilise. If the European question had been more debated, they might have become more involved, since it often affects them directly. The figures show that the diaspora voted predominantly green. Why are the Swiss Abroad so ecologically-minded?

A.R.: I don’t think the Swiss Abroad are necessarily more ecological. However, in many of the countries where they live, green parties are a more established part of the political and media landscape than in Switzerland. Maybe they thought this ecological angle should be better represented in their home country, too. Is the Green victory good news for the OSA?

A.R.: I can’t say if it’s a good or a bad thing. That said, we do already have good contact with Green and Liberal Green parliamentarians, even if we don’t agree on everything, as is the case with all parties. On the question of e-voting, we haven’t yet managed to find common ground. We understand the worries about the security of online voting – this is also extremely important for us. But it’s unacceptable that 180,000 people are not able to exercise their political rights. And so we need to build a direct and pragmatic dialogue with them. Some Swiss Abroad didn’t manage to cast their ballot because the postal-vote materials didn’t arrive on time. Some are planning to launch legal proceedings to ask for the overturning of the election results. Is this a serious prospect?

A.R.: Such an action would have practically no chance of success. We need to stay realistic, all the more so given the government’s refusal to recognise e-voting as an official third channel of voting - the first two being directly at the ballot box, and by post. This said, the anger of those Swiss Abroad who couldn’t exercise their right to vote has to be taken seriously. I’d guess that those launching legal proceedings are rather hoping to score a symbolic victory, something that says, “we don’t accept that things are moving backwards”.

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