BERN, SWITZERLAND – The votes are in, and it was a close one: unofficially, pollsters show the Swiss Sunday 9 February approved by 50.34 percent a right-wing People’s Party proposal to limit “mass immigration”. Officially, the results will be available later from the Federal Chancellery.
Ticino’s nay vote: the country’s largest
Ticino voted massively in favour of the measure: the only Italian language majority canton voted 78 percent to curb immigration and in the process caught the attention of other parts of the country. French-speaking Swiss politicians are ruefully admitting they might have listened better to complaints from people in Ticino that the influx of immigrants from Italy is causing major social and economic problems in the canton.
Among the problems in the canton that borders Italy: grossly underpaid foreigners, sometimes working as black market labourers. The issues for Ticino are complex, however, and include problems linked to education and schools, healthcare costs and taxes.
Western Switzerland strongly against a ceiling for immigrants
Basel and other border cantons in western Switzerland voted strongly against the popular initiative, Geneva with 61 percent and Vaud with 71 percent saying no. Commentators remarked Sunday that these are among the cantons most affected, the ones with the highest rates of immigration and, in urban areas, some of the highest housing prices.
Some groups have pointed to foreigners with high salaries as driving up the price of real estate, for example, in the Lake Geneva region, but a number of politicians from various parties said Sunday that the housing problems are linked to the slowness to build to accommodate rapid growth.
The vote came down to the wire, with uncertainty over whether Zurich and Bern, among the last to report their votes, would swing it to a “no” vote.
The last vote this close in recent memory was in 2009 when Switzerland voted in favour of biometric passports, but it was such a close call that several groups demanded recounts from a federal court. The vote was upheld.
Significance: uncertain for now
The real significance of Sunday’s vote in favour of capping immigration is now being hotly debated on Swiss television and public radio. Concerns are being raised about the reaction of the rest of Europe, given the close economic ties between the European Union and Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU.
The ballot mailed to citizens said the popular initiative calls for a change to the constitution that would have Switzerland manage immigration by foreigners autonomously. This means that ceilings will be set with annual limits [note: this is currently the case for foreigners from non-European Union and EFTA countries]. The ceilings will cover all groups of foreigners, including asylum seekers. The length of time, family groupings and social benefits may all be limited.
Cross-border workers affected
Frontaliers, or cross-border workers, as well as asylum seekers, thus must be included in the quotas according to the text that was passed. But the Federal Council has already cautioned that under international law Switzerland cannot send back to their countries asylum seekers who risk persecution or cruel or inhumane treatment, and it is unclear how a ceiling would deal with this.
The timeframe for implementing the change to the constitution called for by voters is also unclear but it sets a deadline of up to three years to renegotiate treaties, such as the Schengen Accord covering the free movement of people.
The flexibility of EU citizens who lose their jobs in Switzerland to remain long enough to find a new job will likely be affected, since the new measures call for foreigners to have “sufficient income”. Foreigners who are fluent in the Swiss language of the area where they want to work will fare better than those without, since the new measures also call for a person’s “capacity to be integrated” to be taken into consideration.
12 cantons used electronic voting
Nearly half of Swiss cantons offered some citizens the option to vote electronically 9 February, according to the Chancellery, with Geneva and Neuchatel allowing electronic voting within their cantons while the others allow it only for their residents who live abroad, and only some of these. The federal government will allow up to 10 percent of the voting population to send their ballots electronically; currently 3 percent do so.