Elections are in full swing for the Council of the Swiss Abroad (CSA), but not everyone is happy about the way they are organised. Different countries have their own rules – which leave many Swiss expatriates effectively disenfranchised.
The current CSA meets for the last time in Bern on Saturday. The elections for the next council are being held over period from January to June, and it will be in office from 2013 to 2017. It will sit for the first time on August 16 in Davos during the Congress of the Swiss Abroad.
The council represents the interests of Swiss expatriates to the authorities and to Swiss public opinion. Among the achievements it lists on its website are the optional right to continue to make pension contributions, and the introduction of the right to vote by mail.
Grumbling in the ranks
But its own voting procedures are now being called into question. The delegates are currently elected by the umbrella organisations of clubs for the Swiss abroad, or – in countries where there are no such clubs – by Swiss associations designated by the CSA. The procedures vary from country to country.
“The model is very decentralised. The umbrella organisations or recognised institutions follow their own statutes in the way they hold the elections,” said Rudolf Wyder, director of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).
Any Swiss living abroad who belongs to a recognised association can stand for the CSA, but cannot necessarily take part in the election of delegates. In some cases, only people who go to attend a general assembly can cast a vote, while in others voting is limited to the representatives of different associations within an umbrella organisation.
Anne Bessonnet-Landry, who is standing for the CSA from France, has her doubts about the way in which the elections are conducted there, although it is the country with the biggest delegation at the CSA.
“When I submitted my name, I was unaware of what seems to be a French peculiarity: the only people who have a vote are the chairmen and women of the Swiss associations and clubs in France. What that means in real terms is that the 12 French delegates to the CSA, who are supposed to represent the 180,000 Swiss living in France, are elected by a mere 70 people, in other words, an electoral body consisting of … fewer than 0.05 per cent of the total!”
“Since I announced my intention of standing, a large number of fellow Swiss, who are not happy about being stripped of their voting rights like this, have contacted me with their grievances about the way the election is organised in France.”
In the meantime
As far as the Union of Swiss Associations in France is concerned, its chairman Jean-Michel Begey says everything is being done to improve things.
“We have already done a lot of work to involve the associations more. And this is beginning to bear fruit,” he said. “For the next elections we have 18 candidates for the 12 available seats, and 60 per cent of the candidates are standing for the first time. This larger number of candidates means that the accusation often made that we co-opt people has less weight.”
“Furthermore, I am going to send the résumés of the candidates to the chairman of all the associations a month before the vote,” he said. The selection will be made within the different committees. That means that it won’t only be the chairmen who decide. Of course, ideally all the members of the associations should be able to vote. We are quite open to this possibility. But meanwhile, for lack of anything better, we must make the best of the current situation.”
swisscommunity.org, the online discussion platform for Swiss expatriates, carries a large number of messages from people angry that it is necessary to belong to an association recognised by the OSA in order to stand for the CSA or to elect its members.
“It’s true that there’s a problem of democratic legitimacy,” says Carlo Sommaruga, member of the CSA and of the foreign policy committee of the House of Representatives.
“Most Swiss abroad do not belong to an association. This model, which worked very well in the 1960s and 70s, is completely outdated at a time when expatriates are more and more mobile. Lots of them don’t see why they should belong to a jass club [typical Swiss card game], or singing group, or hornussen association [Swiss team sport] in order to be represented.”
But Rudolf Wyder sees some advantages in delegating the organisation of elections to different national associations and organisations, because that means they are closer to local reality.
Nevertheless, he is aware of the need to expand the voting base. The idea is to move toward a system of direct elections by electronic voting.
An obvious way to organise voting to guarantee that only eligible people participate would be to use the voting register of Swiss expatriates - some 185,000 people, or over a quarter of all the Swiss Abroad. This looks like a promising solution: e-voting has already been tested successfully for federal elections for several years.
A pilot project was in fact already planned for the current CSA elections. But when the foreign policy committee of the House of Representatives asked for the OSA to be given electronic access to the registered expatriate voters, the government turned down the request.
“Data contained in the system can only be used for consular affairs. The passing on of personal data to private third parties, like the OSA, was not envisaged, and under the federal law on data protection is only possible if the person concerned gives their express consent.”
But this could change. The system will probably have to be replaced in 2015 by a different one that conforms to the Swiss cyber administration strategy, and then the government says it will examine whether a solution can be found which would enable the federal administration to support e-voting for delegates to the CSA.
Wyder points out that the switch from an indirect election system to a direct one could have an impact on the Swiss clubs and associations, which might lose out under such an arrangement. But he sees them playing a role in the election campaigns – “a more important role than they do today”.
Only the rich need apply?
Delegates to the CSA are obliged to go to Switzerland twice a year for the day-long council meetings. But the compensation they receive is only symbolic: about a hundred francs (dollars) and a free meal.
So the cost of travelling to Switzerland can be an obstacle, especially for those coming from far away. A forum on swisscommunity.org makes no bones about it, asking point-blank: “Do delegates to the CSA have to be rich?”
“Obviously the travelling expenses could be too heavy for a delegate who might be a student or a young person just starting work,” Bessonnet-Landry commented. Wyder admitted that delegates need to have “time and money” at their disposal.
At the moment, a number of associations do in fact make a contribution to the expenses of the delegates. But this could change if and when they become less directly involved in the election process.
“The OSA needs to find a way to help out with expenses,” said Wyder. “Introducing a system of direct elections without at the same time lowering the barrier to enable people to stand would not improve the democracy.”
(translated from French by Julia Slater), swissinfo.ch