Expats veer left and vote for change

Young Swiss expats visiting parliament in Bern. How will they vote when they grow up? Keystone

Here’s scientific evidence: Many Swiss expatriates tend to vote left-green and tend to favour liberal ideas. Two separate reports confirm a political profile marked by openness towards the outside world and towards change.

This content was published on May 22, 2012 - 08:56

The study by political expert Michael Hermann from Zurich University endorses findings of a survey by scientists from Lausanne University.

“The average Swiss expat is politically more open minded, willing to embrace reforms and therefore less conservative than the electorate at home,” concludes Hermann.

This is hardly surprising for a segment of voters who have emigrated - albeit often temporarily, he admits. But the decisive factor is the social and educational background of the expats with an above average percentage of people with high professional skills and holding leading positions.

“High-quality professional skills, hunger for success and a political open-mindedness of many expatriates define the profile of this group,” he says.

However, Hermann adds there is a great diversity of party political preference and that the expat electorate are not typical lefties.

He found that the Social Democrats were the most popular party for expat voters in the 2011 parliamentary elections with 21 per cent, ahead of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party with 20 per cent. This compares with just below 18.7 per cent and 26.6 per cent respectively of support among the domestic electorate.

Also striking is the disparity in support for the Greens (more popular among the expats), and the centre-right Christian Democrats and Conservative Democrats (less popular) – two groups rooted in traditionally rural parts of the country.

Similar results

Hermann’s study on behalf of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) appears to back  results of a survey by political scientists Georg Lutz and Pascal Sciarini, presented at the beginning of the month.

While the two scientists from the Lausanne-based Foundation for Research in Social Sciences relied on 1,629 respondents from an online survey among Swiss expats, Hermann chose a different method for his systematic investigation.

He had access to the records of nine (out of 26) cantons about the voting patterns of last year’s parliamentary elections. In addition he included the results of all the nationwide votes from 2004 registered separately in cantons, including Geneva, Basel City but also Lucerne and Appenzell Inner Rhodes.

The samples in Hermann’s study represent about 50 per cent of the total expat electorate and were then extrapolated to complete the picture.

Both Hermann and Lutz agree on a cosmopolitan profile of the Swiss Abroad with certain left-leaning political preferences and both qualify their appraisal.

Lutz argues that it is striking to see that the People’s Party is neck-and-neck with the Social Democrats. Hermann for his part stresses that expat voters appear to favour economic liberalism and deregulation – anything but typical leftwing positions.

Long way

The Swiss Abroad won the right to vote via post 20 years ago as OSA director Rudolf Wyder points out.

“It took some time and the first attempts date back to the early 1920s. But suddenly there was a way out for what had seemed to be insoluble,” Wyder says.

He adds that Switzerland came under pressure to grant its citizens abroad suffrage as notably France and Russia were pushing the issue for their citizens.

Nowadays Switzerland is among many other countries in Europe to offer direct democratic rights to its expat community. Turnout among expatriates is up to seven times higher than officials expected in the late 1980s.

Wyder argues the voting rights for Swiss living overseas have been a success story as expats “are a benefit for Switzerland because they represent the country abroad and believe in its values.”

However, he says OSA is not insisting on “dragging expats to the polls. But those who are keen must be given the chance to have their say.”

For this purpose the organisation has been promoting the introduction of electronic voting, not least for expats who receive their ballot papers too late.

A petition, launched at the beginning of this year, calls for the swift introduction of e-voting on a broad basis by the next parliamentary elections in 2015. Doubts remain whether it is realistic demand.

“Sometimes you have to call for more than you can get,” said OSA president, Jacques-Simon Eggly at a news conference on Monday.

Key facts

There were just over 703,000 Swiss living abroad at the end of 2011, mainly in neighbouring France, Germany and Italy. There is also a sizeable number of expats in English-speaking countries (see graphic below).

Some 143,000 Swiss expats have registered to take part in elections as well as nationwide and cantonal votes.

The right to vote by post was introduced in 1992.

Swiss abroad in 10 cantons have been part of ongoing trials with e-voting.

Registered Swiss expats account for 2.4% of the total potential electorate.

Expats have no guaranteed seats in parliament.

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Party strength

Party strength in 2011 elections to the House of Representatives.

(expat figures are estimates)


People’s Party

20% (expats)   26.6% (overall)

Social Democrats

21% (expats)  18.7% (overall)

Radical Party                    14.5% (expats)  15.1% (overall)

Christian Democrats         11%  (expats)   12.3% (overall)

Greens                              15%  (expats)   8.4% (overall)

Conservative Democrats    3.5% (expats)   5.4% (overall)

Liberal Greens                    5.5% (expats)   5.4% (overall)

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