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Secret ballot for citizenship masked xenophobia

A would-be Swiss citizen waits for the local citizens' assembly to vote Keystone

An analysis of naturalisation decisions taken in more than 1,400 Swiss communes between 1990 and 2010 has found a dramatic increase in the rates of acceptance since a 2003 court ruling which put an end to decisions by ballot box.

Political scientists, Dominik Hangartner of the London School of Economics and Zurich University and Jens Hainmueller of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published the study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, in which they compare the naturalisation systems used by different Swiss communes.

When communes changed their system of approving citizenship applications, entrusting the decision either to elected politicians or to a specialised commission, naturalisation rates went up by 50 per cent in the first year, and another 50 per cent in the year following.

Those who benefited most from the change were immigrants from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey, where the rates soared by 75 and 68 per cent respectively.

As Hangartner explained to, it was clear that people had previously been turned down solely on the basis of where they came from, since the researchers were careful to compare like with like: “People with the same skill level, same integration status, same language skills, applying in the same commune at the same time.”

Crowd pleaser

Foreigners wishing to obtain a Swiss passport face a number of hurdles, even once they have been resident for long enough to apply – normally 12 years – and the process can be more or less complicated, depending on where they live.

Although the criteria for eligibility are laid down at federal level, would-be citizens have to make their application at the level of their commune of residence and be accepted there first.

In 1990, the overwhelming majority of communes – 80 per cent – used direct democracy to decide on citizenship applications. Citizens of the commune voted either by show of hands or at the ballot box.

The Federal Court ruled that voting at the ballot box was unconstitutional: since voters do not give reasons for their choice when they cast a ballot, this left rejected applicants with no grounds on which to lodge the appeal to which they are legally entitled.

Voting by show of hands is still permissible, because this takes place at a public meeting where voters express their views prior to taking their decision. Rejected applicants can base an appeal on negative statements made during this discussion.

Last come, least wanted

The phenomenon of discriminating more harshly against recent immigrants is well-established, as the researchers found from their examination of data going back to 1970.

“What we saw over this very long time period is that xenophobic preferences respond quite dynamically to the most recent group of immigrants.

Whichever group is the one coming into the country at the moment is the one with the highest rejection rates. In the 1960s and 70s, that meant applicants from Italy, and in the early 2000s it was applicants from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey,” explained Hangartner.

Italians did benefit from the switch to indirect democracy, but by only six per cent.

Whether this is because when groups have been around for a long time they are perceived as better integrated, or whether they have to wait until they are displaced by a fresh group of newcomers, is hard to determine, he said.

Local politicians are no less conservative that the people who elected them; from the interviews they conducted with local officials, the researchers concluded that the reason for the change was that elected politicians realise that a successful appeal will “bounce back” against them, while anonymous voters do not have to take responsibility for their decisions.

Changing times

“I think direct democracy has many, many advantages, and it is quite rightly praised by many as one of the most representative ways to enact legislation and decide on political matters,” said Hangartner. “However I also think there are some policy domains, and deciding on individual citizenship applications is one of them, where maybe direct democracy is not the most ideal institution to decide.”

“A specialist committee, or elected politicians, can interview the applicants, they can look at all the necessary data without violating the privacy of those applicants and make an informed decision.”

He would like to see the indirect system spread to all communes in this particular matter.

Historically there were good arguments why the inhabitants of communes should vote on who should be admitted to membership, he pointed out: the commune acted as welfare state for its poor members, and didn’t want to attract “tourists” from elsewhere. But this is no longer the case.

The role of direct democracy

Under Swiss naturalisation law applicants must be well integrated, be familiar with Switzerland, comply with the rule of law and be of no danger to internal or external security.

The degree of integration is not easy to assess. It used to be done on the basis on interviews, although now many communes require applicants to take courses on such things as the political system and local culture and traditions.

But in each case it’s up to the commune – or in some cases the canton – to decide on this. Where an immigrant happens to live can have a “huge impact” their chance of getting a passport.

Hangartner suggests that direct democracy could have a role in setting out the criteria, with residents deciding what they think is necessary to be a Swiss citizen, and how  integration status and language skills should be assessed.

There is no international consensus about eligibility criteria for would-be citizens – but the three-tiered Swiss system, where a person has to apply at local level before being granted citizenship at cantonal and national levels is unique.

“That the local voters in your commune, at least in some parts of Switzerland, have the option to decide on your individual application is also unique,” Hangartner said.

“The only other country we know of that had a similar system was classical Athens, 2,500 years ago,” he added.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR