Switzerland: The case for giving foreigners the vote, or not

by Gaby Ochsenbein in Neuchâtel, swissinfo.ch

Of the roughly eight million people living in Switzerland, 1.8 million are foreigners, largely excluded from the political process. Immigration expert Gianni d’Amato tells swissinfo.ch that this calls the nature of democracy into question.

A democracy that refuses to give a political voice to people who have contributed for decades to the country’s economy is less democratic that a state that gives them such rights, says d’Amato, head of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies at Neuchâtel University.

swissinfo.ch: The Swiss authorities keep stressing how important it is for the foreign population to integrate. But foreigners are in effect prevented from taking part in politics. Why is that?
Gianni d’Amato: There are two different ways of looking at the value and significance of participation. For some, participation is like the prize at the end of a long period of integration – in other words, getting civil rights depends on being naturalised.

But you can also see it the other way round: that it’s by participating – that’s to say, sharing in rights – that you become integrated into society.

You can see both these points of view in Switzerland too. In the west of the country, where five cantons allow foreigners to vote, participation is seen as a prerequisite for integration. But in German- and Italian-speaking Switzerland the view tends to be that first you should integrate, and then we’ll see what happens next.

swissinfo.ch: How does Switzerland compare with other places in Europe as far as political participation is concerned?

Foreign nationals have the vote in Renens, near Lausanne (Keystone)

G. d’A.: Western Switzerland is at the top in a European comparison, while the rest of the country is around the lower part of the middle. The Scandinavian countries are progressive, and so are Belgium and the Netherlands. But there are other countries where foreigners are given no voice at all.

Within the European Union the status of citizen of the Union, which is relatively new, gives incredible rights. All EU citizens have the right to vote both at local level and for the European parliament. The idea that you can move from one state to another and not be discriminated against is a ground-breaking achievement.

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