The long road to full political rights for Swiss expats

Until 1992 Swiss expatriates wishing to take part in votes and elections in Switzerland had to return to their country of origin to cast their ballot Keystone

The right to take part in votes and elections for Swiss citizens living abroad was hard to come by. Critics regularly call for restrictions but that would be tantamount to curtailing fundamental rights, according to a democracy expert.

This content was published on January 25, 2018 - 11:00

The history of suffrage in Switzerland is complex. Women won full political rights only in 1971, and Swiss citizens living abroad had to wait until 1977.

These Swiss were long considered second class citizens despite numerous attempts since 1874 to introduce suffrage, says Nadja Braun Binder, assistant professor of law and democracy issues at the Centre for Democracy Studies in AarauExternal link.

A turning point in the history was a constitutional amendment in 1966 which enshrined the political rights of the Swiss abroad. But nearly ten years passed before the government published a document listing the advantages and disadvantages of extending full political rights to this global community.

Pros and cons

The main reasons in favour were the closer ties that would be forged between the Swiss abroad and their country of origin, as well as their boost in status as fully recognised citizens.

The government argued that many young people were leaving Switzerland only temporarily, be it for education or for a work posting abroad. Therefore, they should be given the possibility to continue to exercise their political rights.

Furthermore, many ballot box decisions had an impact on the Swiss expat community. It was also felt that any men returning to Switzerland to serve in the country’s militia army should not be deprived of their rights.

Different countries, different rules

A total of 93 countries, mostly in Europe and Africa, have given their expats voting rights, according to international data from 2006.

Unlimited suffrage: US, France, Spain, Portugal, India (excluding dual citizenship holders) and Austria (registration to be renewed every ten years).

Limitation in scope: Italy (exclusively for expats in countries which have diplomatic relations with Italy), Netherlands (for elections to the House of Representatives and the European parliament only).

Limitation in time: Canada (five years, with exceptions), Sweden (ten years), Britain (15 years), Germany (25 years).

Mandatory: Belgium (registration is free but tied to oblation to participate), Brazil (both for citizens in and outside the country)

Ban: Ireland (exception: Members of armed forces, diplomats).

End of insertion

The government also believed that by granting such rights expats would be given a psychological boost, even if their participation would not change the domestic political balance of power.

Top of the arguments against suffrage for Swiss expatriates, however, was a perceived legal contradiction: Political rights in Switzerland were tied directly to the principle of residence in the country.

It was also said that people living outside Switzerland could not fully understand the political issues and did not know candidates standing for election well enough to be able to make an informed opinion.

In stages

Interestingly enough the issues passed largely without any opposition in parliament in 1975. The amendment took effect two years later.

However, the introduction came in stages. Initially Swiss citizens living abroad had to return to Switzerland to pick up the ballot papers in the municipality where they were registered. This also meant that they cast their ballots in person at the local town hall or at a polling station.

It wasn’t until 1992 that the right to vote by postal mail was introduced. Four years ago, registered Swiss expatriates in eight of the country’s 26 cantons were allowed to vote electronically.

There’s political pressure to extend e-voting rights to all Swiss expatriates by 2019.


Currently Swiss citizens living abroad and wishing to vote must fulfil a single condition, according to Braun Binder: They must register with the Swiss authorities in one of the country’s 26 cantons.

This relatively uncomplicated approach is in stark contrast to other states which have linked voting rights of their expats to a minimum period of residence outside the country of origin, or they have limited these rights.

Canada’s expats forgo suffrage after five years, while British or German expats do so after 15 and 25 years respectively, to give just three examples.

Proponents of such restrictions argue that citizens lose touch with their country of origin after living overseas for a certain number of years.

Nadja Braun Binder, expert on law and European democracy zVg


Braun Binder points out that the period of time can’t be the decisive factor when judging whether to extend voting rights, since Swiss citizens living in countries neighbouring Switzerland often maintain a keen interest in Swiss politics over a long period of time while those living overseas could lose touch very quickly.

There are also calls in Switzerland to split up the political rights of expats, notably by excluding expatriates from votes with no apparent impact on citizens outside Swiss borders.

A case in point was the proposed corporate tax reform, clearly rejected by voters 12 months ago. The parliamentary plan was aimed at granting fiscal advantages to foreign companies in Switzerland.

However, such issue-related distinctions are not compatible either with the principle of electoral freedom laid down in the Swiss constitution.

Braun Binder says the same applies to a proposal to link voting rights for citizens to the amount of taxes they pay.

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