Switzerland’s main political parties are all seeking to gain ground among the 700,000-strong expatriate community as they prepare for October’s parliamentary elections.
The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) points out that parties like to assert their support for expatriate issues in the run-up to elections, but too often there is a perceived gap between good intentions and concrete action.
A sure sign of forthcoming elections for the federal parliament, which take place every four years in October, are the posters of candidates in public places and in Swiss newspapers.
But the six main parties’ campaigns are not just aimed at the domestic electorate. They are also targeting the Swiss expatriate community, as OSA spokeswoman Ariane Rustichelli notes.
“The big parties takea great interest in the Swiss Abroad in an election year. Unfortunately though their awareness of specific expat issues is rather underdeveloped in non-election years,” she said.
Steadily growing in numbers, the Swiss Abroad have grabbed the attention of the parties but often remain hard to reach, not least because they are mobile.
A study from 2006 found that the Swiss community scattered around the world tends to support either the centre-left Social Democratic Party or the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.
“There is a potential for winning the support of 35 per cent of the expat community,” said Andreas Käsermann, spokesman for Social Democrats. “But we have to increase our efforts to win them over.”
On the ground
Practical ways for the parties to reach out to expatriates are the annual Swiss Abroad Congress, the internet - including the social media platforms facebook and twitter – newsletters and simple press releases.
The Social Democrats, the People’s Party and the centre-right Radical Party - all with a specific international branch – also rely on the physical presence of their officials at meetings of the Swiss abroad.
“Our president Fulvio Pelli went to Berlin. We also plan visits to Shanghai and Los Angeles,” said Samuel Lanz of the international chapter of the Radical Party, which has up to 300 members in about 20 different countries.
The People’s Party even boasts 300 members in 48 countries in its international party chapter.
“People who have emigrated from Switzerland realise how important it is to defend our values, independence, neutrality and direct democracy,” said deputy secretary-general Silvia Bär.
Parties without a specific international chapter appear to have more difficulty getting through to the expat target group.
The newly-founded, centre-right Conservative Democratic Party, contacted by swissinfo.ch in January, admitted it still had to consider the issue, while both the Green Party and the centre-right Christian DemocraticParty are looking at possible measures.
The Christian Democratics are to pioneer a special internet tool.
“It will allow the Swiss abroad who are interested in politics to do much more than cast their vote. The platform offers them the option of getting directly involved in the decision-making process of our party,” said Tim Frey, secretary-general of the Christian Democrats.
All political parties are united in their intention to give the expatriate community a greater say, to encourage Swiss citizens living abroad to register with the election authorities and to promote online voting.
For the first time Swiss expatriates from four out of 26 cantons can participate in the parliamentary election as part of continuing trials with e-voting. Nearly half the cantons have been carrying out tests over the past six years for ballots on national and cantonal issues.
The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad says it welcomes efforts by the parties as long as they yield results.
Certain political parties have systematically opposed any proposal to grant additional funds to the expatriate community, says spokeswoman Rustichelli.
“It’s one thing to proclaim support for the Swiss abroad with words, but in reality it is often quite a different story for certain parties,” she added.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party plans to set up specific electoral lists with Swiss citizens abroad in at least ten cantons.
The centre-left Social Democrats has a number of Swiss expat candidates in Geneva, Zurich, Vaud and Fribourg, but no separate lists.
The centre-right Radicals currently has at least three expats among its candidates, while the centre-right Christian Democrats, the Greens and the Conservative Democratic Party still have to announce expats on one of their electoral lists.
The official lists will be published by September, according to the Federal Chancellery.
Parliament recently approved a proposal to cover expenses for food, travel and board for expatriates who are elected to parliament.
Currently there are no expats in parliament.end of infobox
Swiss abroad vote
At the end of 2010 there were about 700,000 Swiss citizens living abroad – representing about 10% of the domestic population. In 2000 the number of Swiss abroad stood at 580,393.
The biggest increase since 2009 was recorded among the expatriate community in Asia (+4.7%). In absolute figures the Swiss abroad in France (+1,508) and Germany (+1,126) saw the most marked rise.
The Swiss abroad have had the right to take part in votes and elections since 1992.
The number of Swiss expats who have registered to exercise their political rights is growing steadily and stands at 135,000 - an increase of 4.5% over two years. Currently about 25% of expatriates over the age of 18 have registered to vote and participate in elections.
Expats can use the postal service to cast their ballot in elections. In some cases they can also take part in votes on specific issues.
(Source: OSA)end of infobox
(Adapted from French by Urs Geiser), swissinfo.ch