Swiss voters reject hardline initiative on criminal foreigners

Part of the prison at Zurich airport, whose departments include pretrial detention, corrections and detention pending deportation Keystone

Voters have rejected – by 58.9% to 41.1% – an initiative to automatically deport foreigners who commit certain crimes. 

This content was published on February 28, 2016 minutes

Only six of 26 cantons – Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz, Uri, Appenzell Inner Rhoden and Ticino – approved the controversial initiative. 

The result does not change the fact, however, that people without a Swiss passport – a quarter of the Swiss population – who commit a serious crime (or two lesser crimes within ten years) could still be deported for up to 15 years. 

The leftwing Social Democratic Party wrote on Sunday of a “historic victory”, saying the public had defeated the People’s Party’s “totalitarian claim to power” and the “far-right spiral of radicalisation” had been stopped. 

Flavia Kleiner, head of the NGO committee against the so-called enforcement initiative, said the outcome was a signal to the People’s Party leadership that the public had had enough of their scaremongering.

High turnout

Voter turnout was 63.1%, the highest in more than 20 years. Participation usually hovers around the 40% mark. Heavy last-minute campaigning, especially on the issue of deportation of foreign criminals, is believed to have encouraged eligible voters to exercise their right. Cities and towns such as Bern, Biel and Lausanne saw queues of people lining up on Sunday to make their votes count before the polls closed.

The last initiative to see high numbers of citizens casting ballots was the vote on curbing immigration two years ago, when turnout was 55.8%.

Just over 17% of 133,500 citizens, including registered Swiss abroad eligible to take part in an ongoing trial, used e-voting, according to the Federal Chancellery.

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Voters clearly will not tolerate the fact that the People’s Party, with its initiatives, wants to jeopardise Switzerland’s prosperity, values and success, she said. 

‘Watered down’ 

The conservative right Swiss People’s Party had called on voters to enforce the original version of their deportation initiative that had been approved by almost 53% of voters in 2010. Parliament struggled to implement this and came up with its own version, which was criticised by the People’s Party for being “watered down”. 

Its main complaint was a “hardship clause”, which will now enable the courts to intervene if they think deportation will result in serious hardship for the person involved. The People’s Party had wanted deportation to be automatic: commit a crime and you’re out, no questions asked. 

Voters disagreed, by a greater margin than polls had suggested. 

Adrian Amstutz, a senior member of the People’s Party and of the initiative committee, insisted on Sunday that “the hardship clause will be abused”. 

Toni Brunner, the outgoing People’s Party president, said he would hold his opponents to their word and “make a little tally sheet and tot up the deportations”. He demanded the hardship clause be used only “in absolutely exceptional cases”. 

Divided country 

At a cabinet news conference after the final result, an emotional Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said it was a “good day for the rule of law”. 

Results vote February 28, 2016

Hardline proposal deportation of criminal foreigners: 41.1% Yes 58.9% No

Second Gotthard road tunnel: 57% Yes 43% No

Tax breaks for married couples: 49.2% Yes 50.8% No

Ban on food speculation: 40.1% Yes 59.9% No

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She started her speech by addressing Switzerland’s 300,000 so-called secondos, people born and raised in Switzerland to immigrant parents but who do not have Swiss citizenship. Legally they are foreign and therefore subject to the deportation initiative. 

“Secondos belong to our society and should be treated decently,” she said.

In the run-up to the vote, many critics had pointed out that if these second-generation Swiss committed a crime, they faced being deported to a country where they might not know anyone and might not even speak the language. 

Sommaruga, a Social Democrat, described the mobilisation of voters in recent weeks as “fascinating”, but added she had also perceived a lot of incomprehension, aggression and hatred. 

“Not for the first time our country is split; divisions are opening up across Switzerland.” Divisions between town and country, between regions, between those who consider themselves cosmopolitan and those who are sceptical of all foreigners. Now, she said, it was a question of making these divisions smaller again, “and that can only be achieved through dialogue”. 

She had two messages for everyone who had voted no on Sunday: “continue your engagement, and build bridges with those who today voted yes.” 

In answer to a question, Sommaruga said the law would come into effect by the beginning of 2017. 

‘Inhumane rhetoric’ 

The Swiss section of human rights organisation Amnesty International said it was greatly relieved that this “direct attack” on the rule of law and human rights had been defeated.

“This clear ‘no’ to the enforcement initiative was able to prevent greater damage than what has already been caused by the deportation initiative,” Amnesty wrote. 

“A large majority of voters were not taken in by the inhumane rhetoric of initiative’s supporters. The Swiss realised how dangerous it would be for everyone to suspend basic rights for a part of the population.”

During the campaign, both sides have pulled no punches in trying to convince voters that the initiative was common sense/racist. 

The People’s Party re-used its infamous black sheep from the original 2010 vote, which featured white sheep booting a black sheep out of the country and earnt Switzerland a rebuke from the United Nations’ special rapporteur on racism. 

Opponents of the initiative used an eye-catching image of a Swiss cross which had been turned into a swastika with the caption “1933: Germany, 1948: South Africa, 2016: Switzerland”. Newspaper columnists had also referred to Switzerland’s “Nazi moment”. 

The swastika was too much for the Swiss Federal Railways, which on February 24 announced it would no longer run the poster in its stations as it offended some of the public. Members of the public who were offended by the black sheep posters were out of luck – the federal railways didn’t have a problem with them. 

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