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Missed opportunity What inhibits the political integration of foreigners in Switzerland?

People listening to a presentation in Bern

Attentively listening: participants at the forum in Bern

(Silvia Schönenberger)

There are few opportunities for immigrants in Switzerland who have not become naturalised citizens to participate politically. In one case where they can, the results are disappointing.

Chairs are drawn close at the seven tables filling the auditorium of the Progr cultural centre in Bern. After greetings and presentations, it’s time to get down to business. Expressions are earnest; the quiet hum of voices fills the room. People’s nametags reflect a range of cultures, but the language of discussion is German.

This is the 16th year that the city of Bern is hosting a networking forum for members and representatives of Bern’s immigrant communities. This year, the forum is also open to organisations that work with immigrants. The topic of discussion on this day in September: how to implement the city’s new “Regulation over the political participation of foreigners”.

The regulation – which allows foreigners to formally bring their ideas to the city parliament for consideration – was approved in June 2015 by almost 60% of Bern citizens who voted. But more than two years later, it has never been put into practice.

Getting started

The city of Bern’s Competence Centre for Integration has been given the task of spreading the word about the regulation. But reaching the thousands of immigrants from more than 160 nations who are eligible to take advantage of the new tool requires a variety of approaches. The forum is one of them.

Over three and a half hours, attendees hear what kinds of issues can and can’t be addressed through a motion. They receive tips for drafting a motion’s text. They discuss where and how and from whom to collect signatures. And they network, looking for potential partners among people who have similar interests.

“I’m hoping that two, three, four, five motions will result from tonight’s meeting,” says the Director of the Competence Centreexternal link, Ursula Heitz.

Supporting role

But in reality, the number of attendees at the event who are eligible to propose or to sign a participation motion is limited. Many of the foreigners present have Swiss citizenship, and the new instrument is specifically designed for people who are not Swiss.

Submission guidelines

Submission of a motion requires the collection of at least 200 valid signatures from foreigners age 18 and older who have B, C or F residence permits and have officially lived in the city limits for at least the past three months. Swiss citizens are not allowed to sponsor a motion or sign a petition, but they can help collect signatures and provide support. Proposals must address an area that falls under the jurisdiction of the city parliament, and are not limited to themes that affect foreigners.

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“I don’t see the point of excluding individuals who have acquired Swiss nationality from the possibility to sign a motion,” says Peruvian researcher Rorick Tovar, a forum attendee. “You would expect these people to have the same interests as other foreigners. Their support would help attain the goals pursued by the motion.”

Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo is at the Bern forum to inform herself on the possibilities for immigrants who reside in Switzerland and do not yet have a Swiss passport to be politically active.

She’s originally from Kenya and has lived in Switzerland for 17 years. As President of SP Immigrants Zurich, the left-wing Social Democratic Party’s political organ for immigrants, she is already politically active. But as a Swiss citizen and a resident of canton Zurich, she’s not eligible to submit a motion.


At the workshop, one task put to the attendees is to brainstorm topics for a motion. The texts, written on colourful sheets of paper, are sorted into categories and hung on the walls at stations around the room.

The spontaneous proposals fall under the general categories of language learning, political participation, work and career, culture and leisure, and childcare and schooling. Many of these are typical “migrant” themes, says Heitz. She stresses that migrants don’t have to restrict themselves to such topics. “Any theme that’s important to you is an option.”

Defining a topic to bring to the parliament can be a challenge, however. “At the forum I heard interesting ideas,” says Tovar, who is a member of Bern’s Committee for Integration, an advisory body. “Unfortunately, many of the proposed topics corresponded to competences of the canton or even the federation.”

There are other challenges associated with informing and motivating immigrants to take advantage of the new political option. For one thing, says Project Leader Itziar Marañón, “this kind of tool isn’t usually used by members of the public; it’s used by members of the city parliament, who are politically active and politically organised.”

Former Bern city parliament member Cristina Anliker, who introduced the Participation Motion, concedes that “it’s not so easy getting 200 signatures”.

A lack of German language skills is another potential hurdle for many of the immigrants who might be interested in submitting a motion. Input from an organization that works with migrants, or support from second-generation residents or Swiss citizens, can help.

One step closer 

City council member Franziska Teuscher, Bern’s Director of Education, Social Welfare and Sport, sees the new regulation as an opportunity to reach out to the quarter of the population who have no political rights. The city council would like immigrants to be more involved in the city in the future, “politically as well,” she says.

Ultimately, the new regulation is a tool for migrants to contribute their ideas, according to Marañón. “It’s not that it has to work the first time. It doesn’t have to be fast. But it’s a really good way to start being politically active.”

But the regulation could become obsolete before it’s ever used. Shortly after this event, the Bern city council said it is in favour of changing the Bern cantonal constitution to allow individual communities in the canton to decide whether they want to allow foreigners to vote at the local level. If this were to be implemented in Bern, the participation motion would no longer be needed, says Anliker.

Foreigners’ voting rights

Cantons that give foreigners the right to vote/be elected at a communal level are: Appenzell Ausser Rhoden, Basel City, Fribourg, Graubünden, Neuchâtel, Jura, Vaud and Geneva. 

Those granting the right to vote at a cantonal level are Jura and Neuchâtel.

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