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Swiss MPs refuse to extend voting rights for foreigners

Switzerland's National Council has rejected two parliamentary initiatives that would have given foreigners in Switzerland more voting rights.

Swiss MPs refuse to extend voting rights for foreigners
A woman in the French-speaking part of Switzerland casts an envelope containing her ballot. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The Green party had demanded that foreigners who have been legally resident in Switzerland for five years be given the right to vote or stand for election at the federal level. Another initiative, by Social Democratic party (PS), had called for foreign residents to be granted full political rights at the municipal level — also after five years of residence.

PS MP Mustafa Atici argued that the involvement in political processes is an important part of integration, and many communities could benefit if more people could get involved in politics.

Supporters of the initiatives also pointed out that in a country that sees itself as a “model democracy”, a quarter of its population — the proportion of foreigners living permanently in Switzerland — can’t participate in the political process.

However, the lower house of the parliament rejected the initiatives, suggesting instead that foreigners who have lived in Switzerland for a certain period of time become naturalised first and then practice their right to vote.

Currently, some cantons and communes give their resident foreigners the right to vote on local issues and to elect local politicians.

The Swiss-French cantons and municipalities seem to be ahead of their German-speaking counterparts in regards to voting rights.

The cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura allow non-citizens to vote, elect officials, and stand for election at communal level. Conditions vary from one canton to another, but in most cases a certain length of stay and/or a residence permit are required.

In Vaud, for instance, where 30 percent of the population is foreign, immigrants can run for or sit on the communal or Town Council, as well as sign an initiative or a communal referendum.

However, in order to be eligible, they must be over 18 years of age (just like Swiss citizens), hold a residence permit for at least 10 years, and live in the canton for at least three years. 

All foreign nationals are directly entered in the electoral register once the requirements are met, and automatically receive the official material for votes and elections on a communal level. 

Geneva, which has the largest foreign population in Switzerland (45 percent), grants foreigners voting rights at communal level, but they can’t run for office. 

Basel, Graubünden, and Appenzell Ausserrhoden have authorised their communes to introduce the right to vote, the right to elect and the right to be elected. 

But few of the communes have actually introduced these measures.

In Graubünden, only 10 of the canton’s 208 municipalities are allowing foreigners to vote: Bever, Bonaduz, Calfreise, Cazis, Conters im Prättigau, Fideris, Lüen, Masein, Portein, and Schnaus.

Only three of Appenzell Ausserrhoden’s 20 municipalities— Wald, Speicher, and Trogen — granted voting rights to non-citizens.

READ MORE: Where in Switzerland can foreigners vote?

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For members


Will Switzerland introduce obligatory military service for women?

Military service is mandatory only for men in Switzerland, but a new movement may change all that.

Will Switzerland introduce obligatory military service for women?

An inter-party committee launched a popular initiative on Wednesday calling for the introduction of compulsory military or civil protection service for women.

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

Committee members say any person of Swiss nationality should serve in the military or a similar service recognised by law, such as civil protection.

“Everyone should make a commitment to the community and the environment at least once in their life” reads the text of the initiative. 

“The initiative takes a historic double step. It embodies gender equality in service to the community and recognises civilian forms of commitment as equivalent to military service.”

READ MORE: Do Swiss soldiers really use the army knife?

What are the current rules? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases).

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over.

Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

While women do serve in the Swiss military, they make up such a small part of the military that they were required to wear mens underwear until relatively recently. 

READ MORE: Women in Swiss military can finally wear women’s underwear

Is this likely to pass? 

As yet, there have been no widespread polls to see how popular the idea is among the Swiss populace, although the conservative bent of Swiss voters may see the idea fail, given that women did not achieve universal suffrage in each canton until 1990. 

The committee has until October 26th, 2023 to collect 100,000 signatures needed to bring this issue to the ballot box.

The committee has said after the requisite signatures are collected, the issue will hopefully be put to a vote in 2025. 

If the measure is approved at a future referendum, Switzerland would become the third country in the world, after Israel and Norway, to make military service compulsory for both sexes.

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

In late 2021, a Swiss man alleging the rule was discriminatory brought the case to the European court, after having similar legal efforts in Switzerland knocked back. 

Martin Küng, who brought the action, said he was optimistic the European court would find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax which was only imposed on men.

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said.

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision.

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him.

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

READ MORE: Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?