Most Foreigners Fail Test at the Ballot BoxSwiss town puts brake on hopes for citizenship
By Elizabeth Olson
Paris, Monday, March 13, 2000
GENEVA - In a development viewed as possibly encouraging isolationist sentiment, voters in an industrial suburb of Lucerne used the ballot box Sunday to reject citizenship requests from many foreigners living in their midst.
It was the first time that voters in a Swiss city had been able to review highly personal details of their neighbors to judge whether they were worthy of becoming Swiss. Every eligible voter in Emmen, population 27,000, received a booklet containing family photographs and intensely personal data on salary, tax status, background and hobbies for the 56 people seeking naturalization.
Based on that information, only four families, all of Italian origin, were accepted by fellow residents. The rest, many Yugoslavs, were voted down, most by considerable margins.
The vote in the suburb of Emmen was local, but it cast a larger shadow than other referendums in Switzerland on Sunday that proposed major changes including quotas for women in Parliament and other public office and tightening already strict laws against artificial reproduction.
Those changes, except for reform of the judicial system to harmonize cantonal laws, were rebuffed under Switzerland's direct democracy system, which has voters going to the polls as many as three times a year on a huge range of issues.
Critics fear that the newly adopted Emmen process, which had a test run last fall when a Yugoslav family of four was turned down by local voters, is gaining ground. In the far larger cities of Zurich and Bern, the local branches of the right-wing and anti-immigrant Swiss People's Party - whose vote share rose dramatically in last fall's elections - are proposing a popular vote on citizenship.
Their message, opponents say, carries distinct echoes of the Austrian rightist Joerg Haider and his Freedom Party, which entered government in Vienna last month to widespread dismay in the rest of Europe.
"The Swiss feel danger because there are always more and more strangers here," said Urs Ischi, a People's Party member and local wholesaler who pushed for the local vote on citizenship. But he defended the vote Sunday, arguing that "it was not only against Yugoslavs but also against others, including Turks and Hungarians."
Karl Grundberg, head of Switzerland's SOS Racisme, countered: "It's a terrible thing that's happening in Emmen. It's been a real tradition to vote in the villages, where people know each other. It's another thing to do it in a city."
The vote in Emmen reflects Switzerland's struggle with one of Europe's highest percentages of foreigners. Of its 7 million residents, some 1.4 million, or 20 percent, are from other countries, particularly workers from Italy, Portugal, Spain and the former Yugoslavia, recruited mostly during labor shortages in the 1960's and 1970's.
Many of those people, who now meet the 12-year residency requirement, are seeking Swiss nationality but are running up against stiff resistance in central and eastern Switzerland.
Those applying for naturalization in Emmen are part of the 30 percent non-Swiss population of the canton of Lucerne and work in factories not on the city's famed tourist path. Emmen is struggling with the loss of 5,000 jobs at its textile and steelmaking factories in recent years, and an unemployment rate higher than the national average.
"People are feeling insecure in a very new globalized world and have a feeling that being isolated makes them more secure," said Rosemarie Simmen, director of the Swiss foreigners commission, which is starting a study of the naturalization process following voter rejection of a nationwide effort several years ago to make it easier for foreign workers' children born here to obtain a Swiss passport.
One of those rejected Sunday who fits this category is Sanela Omerhodzic, 20, whose parents came here 27 years ago from Bosnia.
"I'm very discouraged. I feel Swiss. I was born in Switzerland, I went to school in Emmen and I live there now. I work in Switzerland. It's not right," she said.
Miss Omerhodzic, who is a secretary in an international accounting firm, said she wasn't sure if she would try again.
"The details they ask are so personal, so private," she said. Her page in the booklet shows a pensive young woman with long dark hair who says she likes sports, earns around $440 a month and has no savings.
Under Swiss law, citizenship is not a right but a sensitive political decision that starts at the commune. If the person is accepted there, the application then proceeds to the cantonal and federal levels, which also must approve granting the red passport with its white cross.
Emmen voters agreed last June that becoming Swiss would be decided by popular ballot.