Swiss to Decide on Secret Votes by Public on Citizenship Candidates

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jun 1 22:13:36 UTC 2008

June 1, 2008
Swiss to Decide on Secret Votes by Public on Citizenship Candidates


ADLISWIL, Switzerland  Milikije Arifi has lived in Switzerland for more
than 30 years, since she was 18, and raised a family here. She is fluent
in German  the principal language here in the north of the country  and
speaks it with the same Swiss accent as her neighbors. She passed an
examination on Swiss and local history and government.

Still, in April, for the third time, the Town Council in this Zurich
suburb denied her and her husband citizenship. Although the law encourages
a vote held in public and a detailed explanation, the council made its
decision in private and gave no justification for the denials beyond
insufficient integration.

We did not break the law, said Martin Koller, a member of the council and
its immigration committee. A local community can never be forced to
naturalize anybody.

Mrs. Arifi, a 52-year-old native of Macedonia, said, I was shamed and
exposed in front of everybody. With her Serbian-born husband, Ajrula, she
sat through the hearings on their petitions until they were asked to leave
the room for the secret vote.

We have always worked and paid our taxes, she said.

Mrs. Arifi said she planned to challenge the ruling in court. I am Swiss,
whether they give me the passport or not, she said. They cannot take that
away from me. But I demand my pride back.

On Sunday, Swiss citizens are voting in a referendum on whether to give
municipalities the final say on granting citizenship, and allow
townspeople to vote in secret on whether foreign members of their
community can receive Swiss passports.

Such votes were declared unconstitutional in 2003, but the practice
continues in some pockets of the countryside, according to several
lawyers. The ballot measure would also make it unnecessary for elected
officials or townspeople to justify their decisions, and would deny
rejected applicants any recourse.

Some lawyers fear that if the referendum succeeds, more random decisions
and discriminatory rulings will occur.

There is no guarantee, though, that the referendum will pass. President
Pascal Couchepin told reporters on Tuesday that he would be extremely
disappointed if the initiative was approved.

In the end, the people will not succumb to the xenophobic and
anti-foreigners calls, he said.

Almost 22 percent of Swiss residents are foreigners. The only European
countries with higher proportions of foreign residents are Liechtenstein
and Luxembourg. But some say the Swiss rate is so high because few
foreigners are granted citizenship.

One in five foreigners comes from the former Yugoslavia; the next largest
group comes from Italy. The referendum was initiated by the Swiss Peoples
Party, a right-wing group that is the most powerful party in the federal

Known as SVP, the party made international headlines before last years
general election with a campaign that many called racist. A poster on
billboards across the country summed up the partys stance on immigrants:
It showed white sheep standing on the Swiss flag and kicking away a black

The Peoples Party won additional seats in Parliament, and analysts said
the vote portended more of the polarization that had accompanied its rise
to power, straining Switzerlands tradition of consensus politics and
tarnishing its image abroad as a bastion of tolerance.

Sundays vote is seen as another important indicator of whether Switzerland
is turning away from its more welcoming past as immigrants flood the
country, which has a population of more than seven million.

Switzerlands citizenship process has long been an oddity. Legal scholars
say it must be viewed in the context of the Swiss system of direct

Decisions on individual applicants are made at the local level. The votes
are most often by elected officials, but in the countryside, a more
traditional practice prevails: When people want to become citizens, their
neighbors gather in a town meeting and vote.

Although applicants are given tests to check their language skills and
knowledge of Swiss government, allowing peoples neighbors to vote is seen
by some lawyers as making the system less professional and more open to
subjective judgments.

Until the early 1990s, it was even common for public officials to visit
foreigners homes before a citizenship vote, to see whether the applicants
were sufficiently adapted to the local way of life.

In Adliswil, officials still make home visits, although the applicants may
decline to have one, Mr. Koller said.

Switzerlands immigration rules changed substantially in the early 2000s,
during an wave of anti-immigration sentiment against people from the
former Yugoslavia. Many of the immigrants had arrived in the 1990s as
their country was violently torn apart.

Their arrival coincided with a downturn in the Swiss economy, and many
Swiss feared that the newcomers would take citizens jobs.

In many instances, town meetings refused to naturalize anybody with a
family name from the former Yugoslavia.

After several high-profile suits by immigrants, the Swiss Federal Court
ruled that citizenship votes by townspeople, which were done by secret
ballot, were unconstitutional because they did not provide justification
for a no vote.

The court also said that all rejections, even by elected officials, had to
provide an explanation of the decisions.

The SVP-sponsored referendum on Sunday would have the effect of
overturning that court ruling  though secret hearings remain common
practice even now. As before, the party is using posters to spread its
message. In one, hands, some of them dark, grab for Swiss passports.

Meanwhile, the party has collected enough signatures for other
anti-foreigner referendums. One would allow Switzerland to expel entire
families if one member commits a crime. Another, in a country in which
foreigners make up many of the small Muslim minority, calls for a ban on
the building of minarets.

Swiss legal scholars say the rules that would be set out by the referendum
appear to breach the Swiss Constitution, several United Nations
conventions and the European Human Rights Convention. Last month, a group
of 72 professors of constitutional law took out newspaper ads urging a no

This initiative breaches basic tenets of our constitution, namely the
stated right against discrimination and due process of law, said Hansheiri
Inderkum, a lawyer and a representative of the Christian-Conservative
Party in the Swiss Upper House.

The Arifis wonder how much harder their attempts to gain citizenship could
be if the referendum passes.

After their first rejection, in 2003, a lawyer helped them make their case
to higher city and cantonal authorities, who subsequently recommended that
the council grant them citizenship. When they reapplied in 2005, the
canton formally ordered the Town Council to hand the Arifis their
much-desired passports, but the council again refused.

This is clearly a case of arbitrariness, said the couples lawyer,
Christian Widmer. The council thinks this woman looks like a Gypsy with
her colorful clothes and her jewelry, so they just reject her in this
succinct Swiss way.

Although Mrs. Arifi is not a Gypsy, there are lingering prejudices against
that ethnic group here, as elsewhere in Europe.

Mr. Koller, the council member, said he voted against naturalizing the
Arifis because they were not integrated. It is not a matter of
insufficient language ability or that they are a public threat, he said.
It is that their environment is not so good. He declined to expand.

He added: The canton does not have its ear close to the people. We are
hearing people in the vicinity of the Arifis who dont want us to do it.

Mrs. Arifi says she feels more Swiss than many people who were born here.

She recalls crying when Swissair, the national carrier, was grounded after
filing for bankruptcy years ago.

Taking our children to the airport used to be one of our favorite weekend
pastimes, she said.

To show her support for the Swiss soccer team  the European soccer
championships start in a week  she would normally clamp a Swiss flag on
her car door, as many Swiss are doing. Not this time.

Usually I am Swiss with all my heart, Mrs. Arifi said. But this time there
will be no flag. I feel too hurt.


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