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Scattered Swiss retain voting rights

(swissinfo.ch)

Some 650,000 Swiss citizens live abroad. The number of Swiss expats is equivalent to the population of Switzerland's third largest canton.

The rights and responsibilities of the Swiss abroad - known as the "Fifth Switzerland" because the country is divided into four language areas - are set down in the constitution.

Those who live outside Switzerland can exercise their political rights, under certain conditions and constraints. To take part in federal votes and elections, Swiss expats have to register with their local consulate.

In addition to that, every four years voters abroad have to renew their entry in the electoral register of their place of origin or the commune where they last lived. Participation in cantonal votes is only possible in 11 cantons where it is provided for under the respective legislation.

The introduction of postal voting made things much easier for Swiss voters abroad. Until 1992 this group could only cast their vote at the Swiss consulate or while home on holiday. Yet just one fifth of the estimated 500,000 Swiss abroad entitled to vote actually exercise this democratic right.

Home from home

In the sometimes heated debate about immigration in Switzerland, it is easily forgotten that Switzerland has been and still is a country of emigration. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some 200,000 Swiss left the country. Nowadays more than 25,000 people annually inform the authorities that they are leaving Switzerland.

More than 60 per cent of Swiss expats live in another European country, another 25 per cent in North and South America. The rest are spread around the world. Swiss citizens can even be found in the far reaches of the South Sea islands.

The largest Swiss community of nearly 180,000 people is located in neighouring France, followed by Germany with 76,000 Swiss nationals. About the same number of Swiss live in the US. Almost three-quarters of Swiss abroad are also citizens of their adopted land.

Providing a voice

Since the 1999 revision of the Swiss constitution, it has been confirmed in law that the state will foster "the relationship of the Swiss abroad with one another and with Switzerland".

The Service for the Swiss Abroad, housed within the foreign ministry, is the official link between the country and its citizens abroad. The Service provides advice, but also practical assistance in emergency or crisis situations.

The ministry also has a close working relationship with the Organisation for the Swiss Abroad (OSA), founded in 1916. The OSA, which is is supported by 750 Swiss institutions around the world, represents the interests of the Swiss abroad

Numerous other institutions connected to the OSA address special issues and needs of the Swiss abroad. There are for instance foundations that make it possible for young Swiss to take holidays in Switzerland and get to know their home country. Other organisations promote the training of young Swiss abroad.

The Congress of the Swiss Abroad acts as a voice for the "Fifth Switzerland". The 160- member Congress meets twice a year in Switzerland. Delegates to the Congress are chosen by Swiss associations abroad but there are also participants who are based in Switzerland. These are people who have an affinity for the Swiss abroad. Some are returned emigrants while others represent organisations that campaign for Swiss expats.

A 27th canton?

A political proposal to constitute the Swiss abroad as the 27th canton would be a quantum leap in relations between the Confederation and its citizens abroad.

Social Democrat members of parliament submitted a proposal to parliament, calling for the House of Representatives and Senate to be increased by two and six seats respectively, to be appointed by the Swiss abroad.

With that the "Fifth Switzerland" would de facto obtain the status of a canton. This principle is already known is other countries, including Italy, France and Portugal.

However, parliament threw out the plan in 2009.

Key facts

676,176 Swiss lived abroad in 2008 (+20% since 1999).
124,399 of the expatriates aged over 18 - or 23.9% - have registered to vote.
More than 70% of the Swiss abroad have dual nationality.
Since 1992 Swiss expatriates have the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.
There is currently no Swiss expatriate in parliament.

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