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A right to discriminate? Switzerland's relations with its foreign residents will be under renewed scrutiny in June as voters consider a controversial proposal that would allow local citizens to hold secret ballots to decide on passport applications.


You've seen the black sheep, now it's time for the black hands. Never afraid to court controversy, the right-wing Swiss People's Party has come up with another striking--some are saying offensive--image to heap attention on its latest proposal to "protect" Switzerland from what the party describes as "mass naturalisation".

The latest poster campaign now plastered across the country shows five hands--only one of which is white--reaching into a box generously stuffed with Swiss passports. Using official figures collated by the Federal Office for Migration, the People's Party launched its referendum campaign in April with a claim that passports could now be obtained "almost as easily as just picking them up at a news kiosk".

Although quickly accused (not for the first time) of racism by their political opponents, the party's officials have insisted that the June 1 vote is not in itself an attack on foreigners or their ability to apply for Swiss citizenship. Instead they argue that the issue is about the rights of the Swiss themselves. Foreigners can of course receive Swiss passports, the party says, but it should be the people themselves rather than government committees who decide which applicants are suitable.

"We are not dictating how the process has to work but just saying that the individual communities have the right to decide themselves," People's Party president Toni Brunner told reporters at the April news conference.

"People living in big cities might still want to leave the task to their local parliament, government officials or a democratically elected committee--we are not ruling that out.

"But it should also be possible for the people to decide that they want to vote directly on citizenship applications rather than leave it to appointed officials. The whole issue is really about protecting the autonomy of the individual communities."

Turning back the clock

The People's Party initiative is not trying to break new ground. In fact the party freely acknowledges that it wants to turn back the clock five years to the time when ballot box decisions on citizenship applications were legally carried out in several communities across the country.

Although not practised on a wide scale (the government says fewer than five per cent of Switzerland's political communities carried out direct naturalisation votes) the ballot box system came in for strong criticism in 2000 when voters in the Lucerne town of Emmen appeared to come out en masse against applicants from the former Yugoslavia.

Between 1999 and 2005, Emmen rejected 97 applications--85 of which had involved people from the former Yugoslavia. In the 2000 vote, all of the 39 applicants who were rejected came from the region.

Naturalisation via the ballot box was effectively ended in 2003 when Switzerland's federal court issued two landmark rulings against the practice. The country's highest court said that secret votes on citizenship applications were unconstitutional since they did not respect the applicants' rights to know why they were refused.

Human rights groups have also attacked the practice--and the People's Party attempt to revive it--pointing to the votes in Emmen as proof that applicants were often judged not on their own merits but simply on their country of origin.

"As a human rights organisation we cannot give our backing to this initiative--which contradicts not only our own values and the basic principles of the constitution but also current international law," the Swiss branch of Amnesty International said in an April statement, adding that citizenship applications should never be determined on the basis of "a headscarf, skin colour or the applicant having the 'wrong' surname".

No explanations necessary

The People's Party sees things differently, insisting that individual Swiss citizens can turn down applications for whatever reason they choose. If accepted in June's national vote, the initiative would free individual communities from having to give any explanation to those it refuses and would also rule out any right to appeal. The party has pointed out, though, that unsuccessful applicants would in general be able to re-apply at a later date.

"We have a problem with a court decision that says these matters cannot be decided by the people anymore simply because a secret ballot does not provide the reasons for turning down applications," Brunner told Swiss News when asked about a possible return to the voting patterns previously seen in Emmen.

"There is no reason why people should have to explain why they gave a 'yes' or a 'no'. If people from a particular country or region are being turned down, then that is a legitimate expression of frustration at the problems being caused by some of the people from that place.

"Do people have the fight to say they don't want any more people from Macedonia or wherever? Of course they do. It's like a club where the club members are allowed to decide exactly who they want in and who they want out. The People's Party does not want to take that right away from the Swiss."

Fair process

The government and the three other major Swiss parties have come out strongly against both the initiative and the arguments used to support it.

At its own media conference on the subject, the government relied heavily on the federal court rulings, arguing that citizenship applications have to be decided by means of "a fair and proper process", that applications could not be rejected "arbitrarily or discriminately" and that reasons must always be supplied.

"The main issue is whether a fundamental element of our constitution should continue to be valid for all people living in Switzerland," Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told reporters. "It's about whether or not applications can be rejected based purely on a person's country of origin or on their belonging to a particular ethnic group."

While acknowledging that the number of Swiss passports awarded to foreigners has indeed risen in recent years, Federal Office for Migration director Eduard Gnesa insisted this had nothing to do with the Federal Court rulings or with any "mass naturalisation" programme.


Four factors

Gnesa said the increase was down to four main factors, with the main one being a 35 per cent rise between 1991 and 2007 in the number of foreigners living in Switzerland (to 1.57 million, from 1.16 million), producing a larger number of people interested in seeking Swiss nationality.

Simplified procedures introduced in recent years by various cantons, particularly for young foreigners, was another reason cited, along with a 1992 change in the national law which allowed applicants to maintain dual nationality (as also permitted to Swiss who take out foreign citizenship). Gnesa also noted a January 2006 measure that stopped cantons and communities from levying large fees on applicants.

"All these points have contributed to an increase in naturalisations in the last few years, but it should be noted that the trend is now reversing and that 2007 saw 5,000 less applications being granted than the year before.

"The backers of this initiative are trying to suggest that the increase in recent years was down to carelessness on behalf of the local committees. That contradicts current research that shows that around 20 per cent of applications are rejected. The initiative would not, in any case, lead to an improvement in the quality of the decisions, just a change in who makes the decisions."

A potential upset

The fact that three of the country's four biggest parties are opposed to the initiative would traditionally have suggested that it stood little chance of winning public support.

However the People's Party has shown itself more than capable of causing upsets in the recent past, particularly when presenting itself as an 'underdog' championing the rights of the people against the will of the state bureaucrats.

Its critics will be all too aware that the party has scored well on the issue of foreigners. Indeed the current 'black hands' poster campaign is a revival of a similar image used by the People's Party in 2004 to successfully block government proposals that would have eased the naturalisation process for second and third generation foreign residents.

In November 2002, the People's Party again went its own way against its three biggest rivals in calling for a radical tightening of Switzerland's asylum laws. It lost the argument but only by 50.1 to 49.9 per cent--the narrowest margin recorded for a popular vote since 1891.


A survey carried out by the GfS research institute in April suggested that 43 per cent of voters were in favour of the People's Party initiative and only 37 per cent against, with 20 per cent yet to make up their mind--a scenario that looked likely to keep both sides fiercely debating the issue all the way up to the actual vote.

Coupled with the controversial nature of the People's Party campaign posters, the timing of the June 1 poll has prompted concerns that Switzerland could be in for some negative headlines in the international press just as the country prepares to co-host the 2008 European football championships.

Organisers of the event, which gets underway on June 7, have been busy sticking up their own posters depicting Switzerland as an open and friendly country with Swiss soccer fans dressed in various national team uniforms beneath messages welcoming the Poles, the Romanians and other participating countries.

The People's Party insists that its own campaign is neither racist nor contrary to the spirit of Euro 2008. It also points out that it had no influence over the timing of the vote and that "most" of its posters will be gone before the tournament starts.

Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of Switzerland's warm welcome to its foreign guests and the image of 'grubby' foreign hands reaching greedily for Swiss passports may cause some visitors to wonder which is the country's true face.

Two other June 1 proposals

A proposal to limit "official propaganda" by the government ahead of national referenda and a further tweaking of the country's health insurance scheme are the other two issues facing Swiss voters on June 1.

Supported by the People's Party, the first initiative calls for limits on how much the government can say about matters that are put to public vote.

If accepted, the initiative would restrict the government, or cabinet, to a brief statement of its views within the official pre-vote documentation sent to each citizen, meaning no comments to media with the exception of a short statement by the ministers in charge of the relevant departments.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the government has come out strongly against the idea, which has been dubbed "the muzzle initiative" by the media.

The other vote is parliament's response to a now withdrawn People's Party initiative that had been aimed at lowering the cost of health insurance premiums. It calls for a formal recognition in the Swiss constitution that insurance providers have to work effectively and economically, while hospitals should provide high quality service. The government says both are already obliged to do these things and nothing will change.

But in a wry comment, current Swiss president Pascal Couchepin said the government had decided not to disagree with parliament's response concerning health insurance--adding that it will no longer be able to do so, in any case, if voters approve the muzzle initiative.
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Title Annotation:POLITICS
Author:Ledsom, Mark
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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