02 June 2023

Democratizing Switzerland

The Significance of the New Naturalization Initiative

Swiss democracy is in bad shape. About 25% of Switzerland’s permanent population do not possess the red passport necessary to participate in national referenda and elections. This renders present-day Switzerland arguably only semi-democratic when it comes to meeting the necessary and fundamental standard of inclusion. If it is wrong to exclude women, it also seems wrong to exclude 25% of resident adults. On this, there is relatively broad consensus in political theory.

A key reason for Switzerland’s current 75%-democracy is its citizenship law, which is one of the most restrictive in the Western democratic world. After multiple failed attempts to liberalize citizenship in parliament in recent years (see here, here, and here), an alliance of progressive civil society actors and politicians – led by social democrat Arber Bullakaj – launched the Democracy Initiative. It seeks to fundamentally transform the exclusive and peculiar Swiss citizenship system and paradigm to do nothing less than restore Swiss democracy.

While the initiative will likely reach the necessary number of signatures to stage a referendum, it arguably has only slim chances to be adopted. This is because the proposed constitutional changes will be perceived by most voters as too radical. While the initiative can thus be characterized as a long shot, I suggest it is nonetheless vital. In particular, it will trigger a long-needed discussion on migration in which progressive forces can present an alternative narrative and conception of Switzerland as an immigration country that embraces new members.

I unpack these claims by showing how the proposed law, on the one hand, constitutes a paradigm shift in naturalization law, especially because it abandons most integration conditions. On the other hand, the reform would overhaul the locally administered Swiss naturalization system. While the system change would normalize the country’s organization of naturalization, the paradigm shift would defy current international trends. I conclude that the content and the timing of the Democracy Initiative is near ideal. From a democratic standpoint, it has some contingencies regarding implementation and is way overdue, while from a realistic standpoint it is too transformative and comes way too soon.

The Restrictive Nature of Swiss Citizenship Law

The current Swiss national framework for citizenship law requires applicants to have been resident for at least ten years of residence, to hold a permanent residence permit, and to fulfill tough integration conditions in the form of language and citizenship tests as well as economic and criminal record requirements. Furthermore, being born on Swiss territory does not automatically make one a citizen, though the conditions for naturalization of second and third generation immigrants are relaxed. This makes Swiss citizenship law one of the most restrictive in the Western democratic world.

Several international comparisons support this claim. One comparison shows that in 2019, the only European peers that were more restrictive were Austria and most Eastern and some Southeastern European countries. Another comparison of 23 OECD countries in 2019 places Switzerland on position 20. And yet another assessment with data from 2010 shows that, when taking into account not only citizenship law but also naturalization rates and voting rights for foreigners, Switzerland was the second-most exclusive country compared to 20 of the most democratic EU member states; only Cyprus was more exclusive.

Crucially, in practice, Switzerland is even more restrictive because national-level indicators do not take into account the idiosyncratic naturalization system. Swiss citizenship is derived from membership in a particular municipality, just like EU citizenship is derived from passports obtained in a member state. And just like the citizenship laws of EU countries diverge, Swiss cantons and individual municipalities also apply different rules.

One of the most consequential local rules comes in the form of additional residence requirements. There is no canton that does not require a minimum residence period in its territory, and most municipalities require some time of residence in their territory as well. For instance, in the canton of Argovia, applicants must have resided five years in the canton and three years in the municipality in which one seeks citizenship. Hence, any time an immigrant resident moves beyond cantonal or municipal borders, the naturalization clock starts ticking again at zero years of residence.

A second crucial and even more peculiar feature of the Swiss naturalization system is that local committees or public assemblies decide on a discretionary basis whether individual applicants are approved (some municipalities even used to hold referenda on individual applicants, a practice that has been outlawed by the federal court). Most importantly, these local bodies evaluate the integration of applicants in interviews, and every now and then some bizarre justifications surface in international news coverage. In recent years, one could read about applicants being denied Swiss citizenship for not knowing the origins of raclette, for wearing the wrong clothes, for not knowing that bears and wolves shared an enclosure at the local zoo, or for not correctly naming the alphorn, a traditional Swiss instrument. The list goes on.

Hence, the Swiss naturalization system is characterized by blatant arbitrariness and frequent misuse of discretion by local bodies, who deny citizenship to applicants that have fulfilled all objective legal requirements. Fortunately, many unjustified rejections could be overturned by courts, yet the problematic discrimination and exclusion inherent in this system persists.

This is a fundamental problem for democracy if we agree that democracy means that all long-term residents in a national territory should have a say in lawmaking. There are various ways of elaborating this argument. American revolutionists insisted that there should be no taxation without representation. Others argue that all long-term residents being subject to state coercion should have democratic rights no matter what emblem is on their passport. Others point to the fact that all long-term residents are or can be directly affected by national laws and therefore should have a say. And still others argue the flourishing of all long-term residents is tied to the flourishing of a national polity and all long-term residents should thus be entitled to citizenship. One may debate whether access to citizenship really solves the problem, or whether a democracy could also grant voting rights to non-citizen residents. Overall, however, there is a consensus in political theory when it comes to the normative demand of including long-term immigrant residents. Based on this literature, I conclude that if a democracy only includes 75% of its resident adults and makes it so hard to access voting rights, it has deteriorated into the tyranny of the native majority.

The Proposed Changes of the Initiative

This is where the Democracy Initiative comes in. It has been launched by the so-called Aktion Viertviertel (literally translated Action Fourquarters, alluding to the idea that Swiss democracy needs to be completed from 75% or three quarters to 100% or four quarters). The group is led by social democrat local politician Arber Bullakaj, who migrated to Switzerland from Kosovo when he was eight years old and who has run for the national parliament in 2019 and will do so again this year. Bullakaj has repeatedly encountered how hard it is to naturalize in Switzerland when helping individuals with their applications. The movement Operation Libero, which fights for liberal values, has joined the effort to put an end to the exclusivist naturalization regime alongside like-minded members of various progressive parties as well as several individual members of civil society, among them also academics working topics related to immigration and citizenship.

The core proposal of the Democracy Initiative is to solve the underlying problem by liberalizing naturalization. This proposal has two components. First, it wants to abandon the localized naturalization system and to make naturalization a legal entitlement once certain objective conditions are fulfilled. The implementation and the granting of citizenship would most likely remain local as the system of being affiliated with a municipality would not be changed, but the specific body that will evaluate the meeting of these conditions would have to be defined further in the implementation of the new constitutional provisions (which is a task of the national parliament). Importantly, however, neither cantons nor municipalities could still demand further requirements of any kind or exercise arbitrary discretion in any way.

Second, the proposed new citizenship law itself would strongly liberalize and simplify the criteria for eligibility. It envisions the following four requirements. To be entitled to citizenship, an immigrant must

(1) have been legally resident in Switzerland for five years;

(2) not have been sentenced to a long-term custodial sentence;

(3) not endanger the internal and external security of Switzerland;

(4) have a basic knowledge of one of the national languages.

Thus, the new law would half the residence duration requirement from ten to five years, make citizenship accessible for any legal immigrant regardless of their specific residence permit or immigration status, and only demand basic linguistic skills. Meanwhile, provisions addressing problematic criminal records and security concerns would be maintained.

A Long Shot, but a Vital One

The proposed law would surely be successful in increasing naturalization rates and thereby strengthen the legitimacy of Swiss democracy by boosting inclusion. However, despite this vital role for democratic development, the initiative is likely to be rejected at the ballot box. While the broad alliance will likely collect the necessary 100,000 signatures to stage a referendum, it seems almost as certain that the referendum will be lost.

The reason for this is twofold and simple. First, most Swiss voters – especially in rural areas – want their local communities to retain the function of gatekeepers for national belonging. They want to determine their own local rules and they want discretion. This system is deeply entrenched. Second, most Swiss voters see citizenship as the endpoint of a successful process of integration, as opposed to an instrument for integration, and they want to keep it that way. Most importantly, demanding only basic linguistic skills of any of the national languages – and not necessarily the one spoken in their municipality – will be too thin a basis for democratic participation for many, though much will depend on the implementation of this provision and the resulting measures to foster language learning as well as the standards defined for objective language testing. Even more, integration efforts and especially language learning are key to the cultural assimilation that most Swiss natives demand from immigrants. Some of the first reactions to the newly launched initiative reflect these points.

In addition, the international trend in integration requirements is moving towards ever-more restrictive regulations. Across the past decades, many democratic countries have either introduced further integration conditions or maintained them in new laws. For instance, Germany’s government is about to introduce a citizenship law that reduces the residence requirement from eight to five years but does not in any way lower the strict integration demands. Going into the other direction, and becoming almost as liberal as Sweden when it comes to integration conditions, does certainly not increase the chances of the initiative.

As many initiatives that are ultimately rejected at the ballot box, it nonetheless matters because it puts the topic of democratic exclusion on the public agenda. For too long, progressive forces in Switzerland have shied away from making bold pro-immigrant proposals in the face of the powerful right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party that owns the immigration issue and profits from its salience in public debates. Therefore, this initiative presents an opportunity to tell a different story about immigration and democracy, and to problematize the assumption that only those that are deemed as “sufficiently integrated” in arbitrary processes by local communities are worthy of democratic rights. Indeed, this is one of the Alliance’s core messages.

In short, by presenting an alternative vision of the future of Swiss society and democracy when faced with demographic change, the Democracy Initiative may help realize this vision in the long run. It thus constitutes an essential step forward in the process of democratic development in a de facto country of immigration that might ultimately embrace this fact as one of its pillars of national identity.


SUGGESTED CITATION  Schmid, Samuel D.: Democratizing Switzerland: The Significance of the New Naturalization Initiative , VerfBlog, 2023/6/02, https://verfassungsblog.de/democratizing-switzerland/, DOI: 10.17176/20230602-231132-0.

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