Update: 19.08.2015

Political rights for foreigners in Switzerland

In Switzerland, foreigners are largely excluded from participation in the political system. They can't cast votes in federal ballots or participate in federal elections. But cantons and municipalities can issue their own provisions on political participation. Where they live is therefore the defining factor about whether or not persons without a Swiss passport are granted political rights. Further important information on the voting rights of foreigners can be found on the Federal Commission on Migration (FCM) website.

Foreigners can vote in much of French-speaking Switzerland

In the cantons of Jura and Neuchatel foreigners can vote on a cantonal level, but they cannot be elected. On a communal level, however, they are also granted a right to be elected. In the cantons of Vaud and Fribourg foreigners also enjoy the right to vote and elect (both actively and passively) on a communal level under certain circumstances.
In the canton of Geneva, foreigners can vote and but cannot run as candidates. Only three cantons in German-speaking Switzerland – Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Grisons, and Basel Stadt – allow foreigners to vote. Surprisingly enough only a very limited number of communities have taken a chance and opened their voting boxes to foreigners (Appenzell Ausserrhoden: 3 out of 20 communities, Grisons: 23 out of 125 communities).
There is also a wide range of conditions attached to the right to vote. Generally the cantons request a minimum period of stay in the canton and/or a permanent residence permit (C permit). While people in the canton of Neuchatel only have to have lived in the canton for at least a year, other cantons are much stricter and require 10 years’ stay in Switzerland and 1 to 5 years’ place of residence within the canton.

Link to citizenship not necessary

Democracy is founded on assistance in policy-making, the voicing of one’s opinion and the right to vote. The Federal Constitution states in Art. 34 that «political rights are guaranteed». According to the Federal Act on Political Rights (PoRA), all citizens are eligible to vote from the age of 18 who are not subject to a general deputyship or represented by a caretaker (Art. 2 PoRA). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also limits the right to political participation as well as the passive and active voting rights of citizens (Art. 25, in German). The European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) does not contain any indication in this respect, except in the first additional protocol which has not been ratified by Switzerland. It defines the addressees more openly in Art. 3 by ensuring the «free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature».
In general, states link political participation to citizenship. But this is not always the case and has not grown historically everywhere in Switzerland. In the canton of Neuchatel for example, foreigners have had the right to vote since 1849. In the EU, the connection to nationality has become largely invalid since EU citizens can vote and elect on a local level as long as they are living in another EU country.

The importance of political participation

In Switzerland, too, the connection of political participation to citizenship has increasingly come under pressure. On a cantonal level, there have been 17 referendums on introducing the right to vote for foreigners in Switzerland since 2001, according to FCM documentation. As a result at least one third of the cantons have introduced foreigners right to vote on a cantonal or communal level or at least have created the necessary political provisions.
The connection of the right to vote to citizenship is particularly questioned in countries that have a high foreign population. It is an important step in integrating foreigners to include them in political decision-making. After all they also pay taxes and take on other obligations to the state.

A quarter of the population cannot vote

It is not logical to link the right to vote to citizenship, since Switzerland has a restrictive naturalisation policy. Even third or fourth-generation descendants of immigrants still have to go through a complex and costly process in order to acquire Swiss citizenship. This has lead to the current state that one quarter of the Swiss population does not have Swiss citizenship and therefore cannot take vote.
Political scientists consider the political participation of as many adults as possible to be one of the most important indicators of a democracy. Organisations like Freedom House also use indicators such as political participation when measuring the quality of a democracy. The lack of access to political rights for foreigners in combination with a rigid naturalisation policy will have a negative impact on the quality of the democratic order of Switzerland because people living in Switzerland only partially enjoy the same right to vote.


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