How the main political parties approach the “Fifth Switzerland”
In the run-up to the 2023 federal elections the biggest parties are reacting to the growing weight of the “Fifth Switzerland”. All now have either an international section or a network for supporters.
A dozen men and women gathered together in the capital city in late summer 2022. They worked doggedly, had lively discussions with like-minded people online – and finally lined up at the end of the meeting to take a group selfie, with everyone grinning and giving a thumbs-up.
What was going on? The Green Liberal Party (GLP) was launching its international section, GLP International. The party felt it was a logical step, as Green Liberal candidates had already achieved noticeable success in the previous federal elections, in 2019.
Founding a section in a small group like this is evidence of a broader trend: the political parties in Switzerland with the largest voting base are leading the way by attaching increasing weight to the role of the Swiss Abroad who want to vote and express their choice. As a result of this step by the GLP, the six largest parties now all have a foreign section or a network for party members abroad.
Around 4.7% per year: this is how strongly the number of people registered to vote is rising on average in the Fifth Switzerland.
The number of voters in the “Fifth Switzerland” is steadily rising
This is not surprising given that the number of Swiss Abroad who take an interest in politics and are registered to vote is steadily rising. Around 181,000 eligible people had registered to vote in 2017, and this figure had risen to 218,00 by 2021.
If this trend continues, there may be as many as 230,000 people registered to vote in the run-up to the federal elections on 22 October this year. This also means that the number of Swiss Abroad is growing by around 1.4 % on average, but the percentage of eligible people registered to vote is growing at a good three times that rate – 4.7 % on average over the last four years. This changes the political weight of the “Fifth Switzerland”. If its potential over the years was comparable to that of Canton Thurgau (178,000 eligible voters), it is now closing the gap – in terms of the number of registered voters – with the cantons of Ticino and Valais. In other words, in close races, votes from abroad could become increasingly decisive.
“Without e-voting, turnout among the Swiss Abroad is around one-third lower than it is with e-voting.”
For the political parties, fulfilling the requirements of those who live abroad is admittedly no less challenging. The six largest Swiss parties are now all investing in the “Fifth Switzerland”. The acute determining factor remains, however, that federal elections are organised at cantonal level. Yannik Beugger, from the general secretariat of the SVP, also mentions this: “Nominating candidates is the responsibility of the cantonal parties.”
No, there is no “Fifth Switzerland” constituency
The reason behind the considerable weight of the cantonal parties is easy to explain: there is no “Fifth Switzerland” constituency; the Swiss Abroad are entitled to vote in their home canton and can also only stand for office in that canton. They therefore represent a very fragmented electorate overall, rather than a political unit.
SVP International, according to Yannick Beugger, will now at least seek dialogue with cantonal parties where there are independent lists of Swiss Abroad candidates standing.
The SP has already had a similar experience. In 2019, SP International ran an independent campaign, ran its own lists in several cantons, and was able to set its own agenda. At the upcoming 2023 federal elections, SP Geneva is expected to field a separate list of Swiss Abroad candidates. Apart from that, the SP is pursuing the goal of fielding targeted lists of candidates from the “Fifth Switzerland”. In addition, according to the SP international secretary, Sandro Liniger, campaign rallies are to be held in key states.
Anyone talking about the political weight of the “Fifth Switzerland” cannot avoid broaching the relatively charged subject of e-voting. Electronic voting is currently no longer possible in any canton. This means that many Swiss people, particularly those overseas, who are interested in politics, are effectively excluded from political participation in Switzerland. Their postal votes often do not reach Switzerland in time. SP representative Sandro Liniger says, “Without e-voting, turnout among the Swiss Abroad is around one-third lower than it is with e-voting.” SP International is therefore campaigning for e-voting to be introduced.
It is not alone in making this demand. The Swiss Abroad can exert their own pressure: the more they register to vote, the more urgently an answer is needed to the question of how exactly they are to exercise the political rights granted to them.
You can download the application form to register to vote here: revue.link/form
The party with the strongest voter base has been active internationally for 30 years
The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was one of the first Swiss political parties to have party structures abroad: SVP International was founded in 1992. It has sections in Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa, and has ‘country contacts’ in Liechtenstein, Norway, Britain and Hungary. SVP International is chaired by Inge Schütz (Switzerland), who lived in Sweden for years.
2023 elections: SVP International is currently engaged in negotiations with cantonal parties in the cantons in which it is running separate lists. Cantonal sections are responsible for nominating the candidates. They are free to include candidates from the “Fifth Switzerland” on their party ticket.
The SVP came out of the 2019 federal elections as the clear winner in terms of number of votes. It won a 25.6 % share of the vote (down from 29.4 % in 2015). The SVP has two seats on the Federal Council.
Contact: General Secretariat of SVP Switzerland, SVP International, firstname.lastname@example.org
Success: SVP International can claim to have secured the 2015 election of Magdalena Martullo-Blocher (Grisons) and Franz Grüter (Lucerne) to the National Council. The votes received from the “Fifth Switzerland” were decisive. SVP International currently has around 370 members.
Contents: by its own account, SVP International pursues the objective of addressing the specific concerns of the Swiss Abroad – concerns that can differ very widely from one geographical region to another – and raising awareness among SVP National Council and Council of States members accordingly: “This ensures the interests of the Swiss Abroad are taken into account during the parliamentary process.” The SVP feels that its own core principles will also appeal to the Swiss Abroad: a secure, independent Switzerland; direct democracy; neutrality in its global sense; and clear boundaries with the European Union.
The Social Democratic Party (SP) uses “antennas” to promote international connections
The SP has had an international section, SP International, since 1999. This section is chaired by Gaëlle Courtens (Italy) and Pierre-Alain Bolomey (Switzerland). To promote mutual communication, SP International has also developed a network of so-called SP antennas. These antennas either bring members together at a local level (Berlin, Brussels, Rome, France, Israel) or help bring members who are scattered in more remote locations (Africa, USA) within the fold of the network.
2023 elections: the SP advises its cantonal parties to nominate candidates from the “Fifth Switzerland” too. The party is also planning on running a separate list in Canton Geneva featuring candidates from the “Fifth Switzerland”.
The SP came in second place in the 2019 elections. It won a 16.8 % share of the vote (18.8 % in 2015). Two of the seven current members of the Federal Council are in the SP.
Contact: Sandro Liniger, International Secretary of the Swiss SP, email@example.com
Success: as well as developing connected structures, SP International has addressed specific issues. Based on the experience that voting participation in the “Fifth Switzerland” is around one-third lower without e-voting, SP International has introduced several resolutions in SP Switzerland in favour of e-voting. The section also played an active part in the European parliamentary elections (2019). SP International currently has around 150 members.
Contents: SP International’s alignment during the 2019 federal elections was clear, as the international section led its own electoral campaign. It focused on the issues of social security, the Swiss bank accounts of the Swiss Abroad, the free movement of persons within the EU, fair taxation and the question of representation for the “Fifth Switzerland”.
The Liberals (FDP) have integrated the “Fifth Switzerland” for years
The FDP has had an international section since 1992. FDP International works not only to connect the Swiss Abroad, but also to bring the issues faced by the “Fifth Switzerland” to the attention of party members, the parliamentary party and FDP Switzerland through lively discussions. FDP International is also active at a European and global level and collaborates with The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party and Liberal International, as well as helping its mother party maintain good international party relations. The chairperson of FDP International is Helen Freiermuth (Turkey).
2023 elections: FDP International is working with FDP Switzerland and the cantonal parties to clarify the options for lists including the Swiss Abroad.
The FDP, which also has two seats on the Federal Council, is going into the elections in third place. It won a 15.1 % share of the vote in 2019 (16.4 % in 2015).
Success: FDP International sees the introduction of the FDFA helpline as a central point of contact for the Swiss Abroad as its own achievement. The helpline was introduced following a motion from independent National Councillor Martine Brunschwig-Graf (GE), which she – encouraged by a suggestion from FDP International – had submitted in 2011. FDP International has also campaigned actively for the Swiss Abroad Law. Currently, FDP International has around 200 registered members.
Contents: FDP International represents a “cosmopolitan liberalism”. It views its role as an international section as “a political homeland for liberal Swiss Abroad”. It also fights for the specific concerns of the Swiss Abroad within its own party and represents liberal solutions in the Council of the Swiss Abroad (CSA), the de facto parliament of the “Fifth Switzerland”.
The Centre has an active network instead of a foreign section
The Centre, formed from the merger of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) and the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP) in 2020, has no foreign section but does have a network of interested people under the name Die Mitte International (The Centre International). The people involved in this network are often members of a Centre cantonal party. Contact with the network – and communications with sister parties abroad – are the responsibility of the delegate for international affairs, appointed by the party leadership. The current delegate is National Councillor Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter (BL).
2023 elections: the party welcomes the nomination of “people with a strong local presence” from abroad, but does not make having them as candidates a requirement for the cantonal parties.
The CVP and BDP had a total share of 13.9 % of the vote in the 2019 elections (15.7 % in 2015). They have since combined to form the Centre party and have one seat on the Federal Council.
Online: the network’s online presence is in the pipeline. Centre party website: www.die-mitte.ch.
Success: for years now, figures in the Centre Party have shown a strong commitment to the Swiss Abroad community, the Council of the Swiss Abroad and the committees of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (which is currently presided over by former member of the Council of States Filippo Lombardi). The Centre Party also has a representative on the Executive Committee of the Swiss Abroad parliamentary group, in the form of National Councillor Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter. The international network, which was created in 2018, had an impact as early as during the federal elections in 2019. The Centre Party fielded a separate list for those elections in Canton Ticino, with candidates from the “Fifth Switzerland”.
Contents: one key demand from the Centre with regard to the Swiss Abroad is e-voting. The party believes that e-voting should be introduced quickly and permanently for Swiss people abroad. This comes against a background of people often receiving their voting materials and ballot papers too late. The Centre Party is not, however, running a separate election campaign for the “Fifth Switzerland”. Its motto is: “We stand for the cohesion of all Switzerland, and this naturally includes the ‘Fifth Switzerland’.”
Green Internationality – even without an international section
The Greens are as yet without an international section. Party members living abroad are currently being sounded out on how they want to consolidate the Greens’ work, whether as members of a network or even an entirely new international section. At the same time, internationality is a reality for the Swiss Green party. They are already working together with the Global Greens and the European Greens. Their events are also always intended for the Swiss Abroad.
2023 elections: the party advises its cantonal sections to nominate candidates from the “Fifth Switzerland” too. In Canton Geneva, cross-border candidates are once again allowed to form their own list.
The Greens were very successful at the 2019 elections. Their share of the vote rose to 13.2 % (7.1 % in 2015). They have no representatives on the Federal Council.
Success: the Swiss Green Party may not (yet) have an international section, but they can certainly derive a sense of satisfaction from the voting behaviour of the politically active Swiss Abroad. The Swiss Abroad vote Green more often than Swiss people on the whole. The “Fifth Switzerland” delivered a resounding yes to the CO² law, which fell narrowly short at the polls. The Greens see it as a success that party members living abroad are making a direct contribution, such as to the compilation of the Greens’ 2023-2027 manifesto. In this way, they are showing where the Greens’ priorities should lie in terms of future legislation, in the view of the “Fifth Switzerland”. In 2019, the Greens ran a separate list in Canton Geneva featuring candidates from the “Fifth Switzerland”.
Contents: the Swiss Green Party is relying on political messages – including protecting the climate – that will appeal in equal measure to Green voters within Switzerland and abroad. The Greens will therefore not be running a campaign that specifically targets the Swiss Abroad.
The Green Liberal Party (GLP) unveils the latest international section
GLP International, founded in September 2022, is the newest international section of a Swiss political party with a strong voter base. The aim of GLP International is “to respond to the desire of the Swiss Abroad to take a more active involvement in Swiss politics, and to ensure that their ideas and perspectives are heard” , thereby “contributing towards the modernisation of Swiss politics”. GLP International is chaired by Thomas Häni (Germany).
2023 elections: the party is looking to encourage as many Swiss Abroad as possible to stand as GLP candidates in the 2023 elections.
The Green Liberals made strong gains during the previous federal elections in 2019. The GLP scored 7.8 % of the vote at that time (4.6 % in 2015). It is the sixth-largest party and has no representatives on the Federal Council yet.
Online: the GLP International website is under construction. The party already has an online presence at: www.facebook.com/glpinternationalwww.twitter.com/GLPInternation1www.instagram.com/glp_international
Success: although the GLP has just founded its first international section, fielding candidates from the “Fifth Switzerland” is nothing new for it. For example, Franz Muheim (Edinburgh, UK) won almost 45,000 votes in the 2019 national elections, standing on the GLP list in Canton Zurich – a remarkable achievement. Well-connected Swiss Abroad played a central role in the creation of GLP International. Alex Hauenstein, chairman of the Brunnen Foundation of the Swiss Abroad, did the preliminary work required for founding an international section as early as 2015. GLP International currently has around 60 members and around 200 sympathisers.
Contents: GLP International wants to position itself as “a forward-facing, progressive, solution-orientated and cosmopolitan party”. Webinars are being organised on current topics in Swiss politics to bring the GLP’s agenda home to the Swiss Abroad.