Foreigners can’t vote in Switzerland yet account for a quarter of the Swiss population. Should this change or do voting rights need to be ‘earned’, as one Swiss politician said? Is this acceptable in a fully-fledged direct democracy? Swiss and German politicians are divided in their opinions. “Swiss living abroad are also foreigners in their countries of residency. They often have a firm view of what’s happening in Switzerland, and at the same time they take part in political life in their adopted countries,” Walter Leimgruber, President of the Federal Migration Commission, pointed out at a recent event. Leimgruber’s conclusion is that the Swiss living abroad are citizens of two states, and living proof that political engagement is possible in two societies. In his view, they’re a good example of how foreigners can enjoy political participation wherever they live, regardless of nationality.
Economic interdependence caused by globalisation, and the fact that 50% of marriages in Switzerland are bi-national, mean “political rights will have to be redefined,” argues Leimgruber, a professor of cultural studies at Basel University.
His approach: link voting rights with “citoyenneté” [essentially residency] instead of nationality – the notion being that foreigners who live, work and pay taxes should have the right to participate in the political sphere.
Although foreigners have numerous opportunities to participate in Swiss life through volunteer work, club membership, or local committees, they seldom do so. One of the reasons could be that information is not readily available, and it is up to the foreigners to proactively seek it.