A test case initiative in canton Vaud giving foreign residents the right to vote on cantonal issues and be elected to political office has been turned down.
Cantonal voters rejected the “Live and vote here” initiative by 68.9 per cent on Sunday. In most Swiss cantons foreign residents cannot vote at either communal or cantonal level, but a patchwork of exceptions exists.
If it had passed, the western canton would have become the first in Switzerland to give foreign residents full cantonal voting rights as well as the chance to stand for local parliament, government and cantonal Senate seats.
The initiative applied to foreigners who had lived in Switzerland for more than ten years and three years in canton Vaud. Since 2003 around 85,000 people fulfilling these requirements have been able to vote on commune level issues and to be elected to commune positions.
“It’s certainly a very clear result,” a disappointed Raphaël Mahaim, a Green Party politician and initiative co-president, told swissinfo.ch.
“For the majority of Vaud residents there is still an important link between nationality and local political rights.”
Leftwing and centre parties had supported the initiative but it was opposed by the right.
“As a foreigner who only recently became Swiss, I think it’s a good idea that people who have lived here for over ten years have the right to vote – you are part of the community, you pay taxes and work and are part of Switzerland,” Lausanne resident Nina Pecoraso, who has Dutch-Swiss dual nationality, told swissinfo.ch.
Mahaim said young people had been much more open to the initiative, which he described as “ahead of its time”.
Opponents said foreigners wanting to take part in civil activities should become naturalised citizens.
“I think it’s good to seek progress on this issue, but the main idea should be to facilitate naturalisation rather than just giving foreign residents more voting rights,” said Lausanne resident Bertrand Sansonnens.
Centre-right Radical Philippe Leuba, head of the Vaud cantonal interior office, agreed, saying Vaud had one of the “simplest and cheapest” procedures for acquiring Swiss nationality. Some 6,000 people applied every year compared with fewer than 500 some 40 years ago.
Fabrice Moscheni, president of the Vaud branch of the rightwing People’s Party, called Sunday’s result a “sensible” one.
“Vaud voters have recognised that to participate in cantonal political life you need to be Swiss and that is something non-negotiable,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Dual nationality problems
Initiative supporters argued that numerous countries did not accept dual nationality and this could have major consequences for foreign residents, such as difficulties returning to their country of origin, separation from relatives and loss of rights over their children.
But Moscheni was adamant: “Some people say they have lived for a long time in Switzerland but don’t want to become Swiss. We need to respect that but they also need to draw conclusions: they can’t have political rights without obligations.”
He said allowing foreign residents to become cantonal government ministers or to elect new judges would have been “absurd” and led to a devaluing of the Swiss passport.
Opponents also argued that participation of foreign residents in communal elections and local initiatives in regions where they had recently got the vote remained modest and was lower than for Swiss residents.
Mahaim admitted that the coupling of extended voting rights with the possibility of running for office had made things more difficult, but supporters had refused to create “half citizens”.
He also rejected the idea that the proposal had been caught up in a wider political debate about immigration in Switzerland. Ahead of October’s parliamentary elections the rightwing Swiss People’s Party is currently running a nationwide campaign, “Stop mass immigration”.
“It’s clear that there is quite a tense political climate over immigration, but this doesn’t explain the 70 per cent of ‘no’ votes; canton Vaud is an open canton,” he added.
Leuba agreed the vote could not be interpreted as a rejection of foreigners.
In most Swiss cantons foreign residents cannot vote either at communal or cantonal level. The exceptions include cantons Neuchâtel and Jura, which allow foreigners to vote on cantonal issues but not to be elected to political office.
A patchwork of voting rights also exists at communal levels in cantons Geneva, Fribourg, Appenzell Outer-Rhodes, Graubünden and Basel City.
Despite Sunday’s disappointment, Mahaim is convinced the debate over political rights for foreign residents is not dead in the water.
“The debate is not closed and will come back in the years to come in different Swiss cantons,” he declared.
As of December 2010, the Swiss population numbered 7,870,100 – an increase of 84,300 people (1.1 per cent) over 2009.
The total number of foreigners living in Switzerland was 1,766,300 by the end of 2010 – 52,300 more than at the end of 2009. That is 22.4 per cent of the overall population.
Italian (16.3 per cent), German (14.9 per cent), Portuguese (12 per cent) and Serbian (6.9 per cent) are the most common foreign nationalities.end of infobox
Foreigner voting rights
Jura: vote at communal level and possibility to stand for political office in legislative elections; vote at cantonal level except on constitutional issues.
Neuchâtel: vote at communal and cantonal levels.
Fribourg: vote and possibility to stand for political office at communal level.
Geneva: vote at communal level.
Appenzell Outer-Rhodes: communes can decide if they allow foreign residents to vote and stand for political office. So far three out of 20 have done so.
Graubünden: communes can decide if they allow foreigners to vote and stand for political office, or simply right to vote. So far ten out of 208 have done so.
Bern: on September 26, 2010, voters rejected a cantonal initiative by 72% that would have allowed communes to give foreign residents voting rights.
Basel City: on September 26, 2010, voters rejected a cantonal initiative by 61% that would have allowed foreign residents living more than five years in the half canton to vote on communal and cantonal issues.
Lucerne: a cantonal vote is planned this autumn on whether to give foreign residents the right to vote at communal level.end of infobox