The Swiss abroad - forgotten voters?

Votes from the Swiss abroad could tip the balance

Last Sunday's exceptionally close vote on the asylum initiative has started a campaign among major political parties to attract support from Swiss voters living abroad.

This content was published on November 28, 2002 - 17:41

The initiative from the Swiss People's Party was defeated by only 3,422 votes and it is possible that Swiss citizens living abroad played a crucial role in the final result.

Figures from three Swiss cantons indicate that voters living abroad were much more likely to have rejected the initiative than those living in Switzerland.

Cantons Vaud, Geneva and Lucerne all count votes from the Swiss abroad separately, and in all three cases expatriate Swiss were firmly against the proposed restrictions in Switzerland's asylum laws.

In canton Lucerne for example, Swiss abroad who were registered to vote in that canton rejected the initiative by a resounding 70 per cent, whereas the overall final figure from Lucerne was only 51.8 per cent against the initiative.

Only a minority are registered

Although there are currently almost 600,000 Swiss living abroad, only around 83,000, or 18 per cent, are actually registered to vote.

The untapped potential of these voters, and the possibility that they could decide the final outcome of votes on important Swiss domestic issues, has not been lost on Switzerland's major political parties.

Although all the parties set up international sections when the Swiss abroad were given the right to vote in 1992, no party has actively campaigned for their votes.

Now the Swiss People's Party, which was disappointed to have lost the asylum initiative by such a whisker, has admitted that it wants to target Swiss expatriate voters.

"We want the Swiss abroad to be properly informed about the issues," said Aliki Panayides, general secretary of the party. "But the embassies won't let us send out political propaganda in their mailings, so we will have to find other methods of contacting them."

Swiss abroad more liberal?

Encouraging more Swiss abroad to use their voting rights may not actually help the Swiss People's Party, though, because recent votes seem to indicate that expatriate Swiss tend to be more liberal in their voting patterns.

Recent initiatives on joining the United Nations, and on allowing Swiss troops on peacekeeping missions to carry weapons, were well supported by expatriate voters.

But political scientist Julian Hottinger warns against drawing too many conclusions from analysis of past votes.

"I would say you have to be very careful about that," Hottinger told swissinfo. "With such a low percentage of Swiss abroad actually voting, it's difficult to know what they really think."

Nevertheless, with national elections due in Switzerland in less than a year's time, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of possible votes has focused the attention of all the political parties.

The Social Democrats, the Radical Party and the Christian Democrats say that they too will be campaigning hard for the votes of expatriate Swiss.

Voter registration drive

And while the parties may not be permitted to use embassy mailing lists to contact potential voters, they will get some help from the Swiss foreign ministry, which has committed itself to increasing the number of registered expatriate voters.

The Association for the Swiss Abroad is also involved; it has launched a voter registration campaign to attract more Swiss to use their democratic rights.

"We are really trying all the time to interest the Swiss abroad in their political rights," Rudolf Wyder, director of the Association, told swissinfo.

Wyder agreed that it would be wrong to assume that expatriate Swiss would naturally support liberal causes.

"I think we have to be cautious," he said. "Nevertheless it's not surprising that the Swiss abroad are more in favour of the United Nations or the European Union. They have had experience abroad, of the world, and have learned that Switzerland is not an island."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key facts

Almost 600,000 Swiss citizens live abroad, but only around 83,000, or 18 per cent, are registered to vote.
The Swiss abroad tend to be liberal in their voting patterns, supporting Switzerland's membership of the United Nations and rejecting stricter asylum laws.
The Swiss abroad gained the right to vote in 1992, but so far no political party has actively campaigned for their votes.

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