Politicians want to empower Swiss abroad

The Swiss abroad do not have direct parliamentary representation

Parliamentarians are looking at ways to give Switzerland’s large expatriate population more political power, including the creation of a “virtual” canton.

This content was published on October 10, 2003 - 09:38

The move would bring Switzerland in line with some other European nations, which allow their expatriate communities to be represented in parliament.

Italy, France and Portugal have all added a clause to their constitutions allowing their expatriates to elect their own parliamentary representative.

A maximum of eight Italian expatriates – spread over four territories – are entitled to become members of the Italian parliament.

France currently has four people in the Senate representing the interests of the French abroad. Portugal also has four expatriate parliamentarians, two of them representing Portuguese citizens living in Europe and two for the rest of the world.

The high number of Swiss abroad – some 600,000 – have led calls for a similar solution to be put in place in Switzerland.

“The Swiss abroad need a new status,” Remo Galli, a parliamentarian from the centre-right Christian Democrats, told swissinfo.

Direct influence

Galli is proposing the creation of a 27th Swiss canton, which would give expatriates two parliamentary representatives.

“This would mean that expatriates could have a direct influence in policymaking and could take part in parliamentary commissions,” he argues.

This view is shared by Aliki Panayides, from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, who says it’s time the Swiss abroad were given a bigger political voice.

“The situation we have at the moment is unsatisfactory, because expatriates can only voice their opinions indirectly by voting for a particular party,” she explains.

Parliamentary seats

The People’s Party has even gone so far as to put together a list of expatriate parliamentary candidates for canton Basel Country. The party admits that the candidates stand little chance of success, but will use the list to kick-start a campaign after the elections.

“In the mid-term, it’s our aim to have a constituency for the Swiss abroad to maximise their chances of winning a seat [in parliament],” Panayides told swissinfo.

In Switzerland, there is usually one parliamentary representative per 35,000 people in each canton. Currently only about 83,000 Swiss abroad are registered to vote, which would entitle them to two parliamentarians in the House of Representatives.

But if all expatriates voted, the community would be as large as canton Vaud, which has 17 parliamentarians.

Global canton

The idea of creating a virtual canton for the Swiss abroad was being debated even before expatriates gained the right to vote in 1992.

Rudolf Wyder, president the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), says the organisation looked into the idea but decided that it was not viable.

“We concluded that it is theoretically a very interesting idea, but in practice, very difficult to carry out,” said Wyder, who describes the proposal as “utopian”.

The present system allows the Swiss abroad to put themselves forward as candidates in one of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, though Wyder admits that in practice, it is difficult for them to garner support in Switzerland.

But even though it is not always easy for an expatriate to be elected, Wyder says drumming up political support in a global virtual canton would be even harder.

He adds that the OSA has already formed the Swiss Abroad Council, which works with parliamentarians from all parties and allows expatriates to air their views.

But despite the OSA’s assurances, Panayides is hopeful that the idea of parliamentary seats will take hold in future.

“Depending on the results of the elections in Basel Country, I am convinced that a debate on the topic will be launched,” she said.

swissinfo, Christian Raaflaub

In brief

The Swiss abroad were first granted the right to vote in 1992.

Of the 600,000 expatriate Swiss, around 83,000 are registered to vote.

If all expatriates had a vote, they would have 17 seats in parliament.

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