Expat Swiss lead a ‘Green wave’ in opinion polls

Senior political analyst Claude Longchamp explains what the expected outcome of the October 20 parliamentary elections could mean for the main parties.

Coverage of the recently published opinion poll ahead of the parliamentary elections in October has almost neglected the area where the biggest changes of all have taken place: among expatriate Swiss citizens.

This content was published on September 22, 2019 - 15:00
Claude Longchamp, political scientist,

According to the most recent election barometer by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, 23% of respondents of the Swiss Abroad community would have voted for the Green Party at the end of August.

The Greens would be the strongest party for the first time ever, ahead of the centre-right Radical Liberals with 18%, the Social Democrats and the Swiss People’s Party with 16% each, the Liberal Green Party with 11% and the Christian Democrats with 8%.

What is particularly worth noting is the shift from the election barometer in June of this year. The People’s Party was then ahead of the Social Democrats, and the Radicals. The Greens were trailing in fourth place.

This suggests a profound shift towards the Greens among Swiss who have emigrated and want to make use of their right to vote. The Greens gained more than seven percentage points in less than three months. The People’s Party, on the other hand, lost seven percentage points, more than any of the other parties.

Global climate debate

The main reason for this new trend is obvious: The climate debate has gone global since the beginning of 2019.

In Europe – and all over the world – there are strikes in schools. Their aim is to raise public awareness and popularise long-known scientific findings about climate change. ‘Generation Greta’ is aiming to initiate political action in support of the Paris Accord and CO2 reductions.

It is having an effect – recently, among expatriate Swiss citizens too. We could call them the front guard of the new ‘Green wave’, because the Green Party and the smaller Liberal Greens are stronger abroad than they are in Switzerland.

And the environmentalist groups are gaining ground much more quickly among the Swiss who have emigrated than among those at home.

Relations with EU

The environment is however not the only issue. Switzerland’s European policy remains the main concern for Swiss Abroad. They are clearly affected by it.

They fear that if the proposed umbrella accord with the European Union fails completely, they will feel the negative consequences.

This view is supported by the third biggest concern, which focuses on the country’s dwindling economic competitiveness.

The People’s Party is held to account for these concerns, because it has consistently opposed Switzerland’s integration into the EU and aims to end the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU.

It is paying the price for that both at home and abroad, at least according to the election barometer.

Low turnout and reasons

Of course, it’s important to exercise caution in making sweeping statements about all Swiss Abroad community based on an online survey. Turnout among expatriate Swiss is in general low: in 2015, only a quarter of registered eligible expatriate voters took part in parliamentary elections.

Of the 800,000 Swiss living abroad, fewer than 5% voted.

The main reason is that expatriate Swiss lead different lives. Problems in Switzerland often appear less significant and expatriates are reluctant to interfere.

Anyone who is politically active from abroad usually identifies strongly with Switzerland, has a big interest in politics and can easily form an opinion, even in more difficult circumstances.

But there are obstacles. The most important is the time it takes for voting documents to be delivered and returned. In contrast with domestic voters who can make up their minds on the Sunday of a vote or an election, expatriate voters confront a process that can take weeks.

The second round of ballots for the Senate, the small parliamentary chamber where the cantons are represented, is particularly problematic. The deadlines are too tight for expat Swiss to take part.

Selective participation

Like domestic voters, expatriate Swiss are selective about which elections they take part in, and especially when it comes to nationwide votes on specific issues. Participation depends on the subject and how it is presented via the internet.

Expat Swiss candidates

A total of 73 expatriate Swiss are running for seats in the parliamentary elections on October 20.

This is an increase of 16 candidates compared with 2015, but down four candidates on the 2011 elections, according the Federal Statistics OfficeExternal link.

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 hopefuls are representatives of either the left-wing Social Democratic Party or the right-wing Swiss People's Party. 

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As with any social groups where turnout is low, mobilisation can make a big difference in a concrete situation.

If the subject is of interest abroad and the consequences of a vote are discussed widely, then more Swiss voters take part, both domestic and expatriate.

The example of the vote on February 26, 2016 shows this. On the question of whether to deport criminal foreigners from Switzerland, as proposed in a People’s Party initiative, almost 35% of Swiss expatriates took part.

In French-speaking Switzerland, it was above all those who supported the initiative who took part. In German-speaking Switzerland, opponents also mobilised.

More progressive

We have systematic knowledge of the voting habits of expat Swiss since the publication of a study analysing 62 nationwide votes between 2002 and 2017.

The Swiss Abroad were clearly more in favour of reforms in family policies, energy, pensions and in easing rules to gain Swiss citizenship. A visible trend emerged in which expat Swiss increasingly voted for more progressive policies, while domestic voters were more conservative.

But different majorities are very rare. On average, such a case arises in just one out of seven votes and it is mostly not decisive.

The People’s Party anti-immigration initiative was a typical example. Expatriate Swiss rejected the proposal clearly, while the Swiss at home narrowly voted for autonomous control over immigration – which was also the end result.

If the impact on the national results of votes remains small, this is to do with the weighting of expatriate voters.

The total number of Swiss living abroad accounts for about 10% of the domestic population. But their participation in votes is a fifth of that percentage. Accounting for about 2% of voters, they are only about as influential as the two medium-sized cantons of Neuchâtel or Schwyz.

Small but growing rift

Nevertheless, in this current legislative period, indications are mounting that the differences in perspective between expatriate Swiss and domestic voters are growing. As explained, there is a trend among expatriate voters towards more progressive values.

At the moment, this finds expression in their decisive responses to two big challenges facing Switzerland: More Europe and more climate protection are the orders of the day from the point of view of the expat Swiss community.

The parties still have four weeks to adapt to these votes.

About the author

Claude Longchamp is one of Switzerland's most experienced and highly-regarded political scientists and analysts. 

He founded the polling and research institute GfS BernExternal link which he headed until his retirement. Longchamp has analysed and commented on votes and elections on SRF public Swiss television for 30 years.

Longchamp, a historian and political scientist, also runs the German-language blog ZoonpoliticonExternal link

This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by Contributors, including outside authors, frequently share their views. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of

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