Bundespräsident Ignazio Cassis. Foto/Photo: TES

Democracy in perspective

The 98th conference of the Organisation for Swiss Abroad (Auslandschweizer Organisation (ASO)/Organisation de la Suisse au l’Etrangé, OSE) was held in Lugano (canton of Tessin/Ticino) from 19 to 21 August. The central theme was democracy from the perspective of European and global developments and the place and role of Switzerland and the Swiss abroad.


The conference


Experts from national, cantonal and communal politics, science and administration presented their opinions and knowledge. The four main topics were the functioning and adaptation of the Swiss democratic system, fake news and democracy, the right to vote and stand for election for 16-year-olds and E-voting. After the introductions by the experts, there was an opportunity for discussion. Four workshops concluded the conference.


Filippo Lombardi, president of the ASO/OSE

 Opening speeches


Filippo Lombardi, President of the ASO/OSE, and representatives from the canton and civil society organisations opened the conference on 20 August to four hundred participants.


In his speech on 21 August, the President of the Confederation, Ignazio Cassis, emphasised the unique character of Swiss direct democracy and its challenges. After a brief introduction to European and global democracy as a form of government from 1800 to the present, he concluded that democracy as a form of government is under pressure today. However, despite the many uncertainties and crises, he believes there is no reason for pessimism in the longer term.


He regards it as a process with ups and downs. Today, it is a period with more people living under dictatorial regimes. Liberal democracies, however, have a decisive advantage: they have the capacity for self-correction and can adapt to new circumstances.


In the global world and its cross-border problems, multilateral and European cooperation are necessary. At the same time, however, many international organisations have been established in a different era and are struggling to reform their organisation and give substance to this cooperation.


What does it mean for democracy in Switzerland and thus for the ‘fifth Switzerland’, the Swiss abroad? Swiss democracy is not a divine creation but must be maintained and adapted daily. It is not only a democracy for the people but also a democracy by the people. It is not only a right but also a duty of the citizens, and thus, Swiss abroad to care for it.


Impression of the panel discussions.

 Swiss abroad


According to ASO/OSE data, around 780 000 Swiss live abroad, around 450 000 in European Union countries. Therefore, it is no surprise that the issue of EU-Swiss relations arose. Above all, the free movement of Swiss citizens in the EU must be guaranteed, according to the ASO/OSE.


For Swiss people abroad, voting by post is not always transparent because of the dependence on local and national postal services. Moreover, emigration has changed. Until 1960, people often emigrated forever. Nowadays, it is usually for a shorter or longer period. For example, around 40 000 citizens leave every year, while 30 000 return. E-voting and information via the Internet can increase the involvement of Swiss abroad.


Foreigners in Switzerland


An interesting aspect is the relationship between Swiss abroad and foreigners in Switzerland, as brought forward by one of the experts. Foreigners in Switzerland do often not have a Swiss pass after two and, therefore, have no right to vote or to be elected. 

Granting citizenship has always been a communal and cantonal affair in Switzerland. Citizenship for newcomers has never been a right but must be earned. 

In contrast, all foreigners enjoy fundamental rights.

All Swiss citizens have communal citizenship, cantonal citizenship and Swiss citizenship. They are an inseparable unity (Art. 37 para. 1 Federal Constitution). Therefore, the acquisition of Swiss citizenship is linked to the acquisition of cantonal and communal citizenship.  In the end, it is always the cantons and the people who vote on changes to the acquisition of citizenship (see also the referenda in 1994, 2004 and 2008).

The parallel with women’s suffrage was mentioned in this perspective. In this case, however, a reference to the context is appropriate.


In any case, it is an essential and topical point of attention, just like e-voting, which also entails (yet unforeseeable) risks and the issue of fake news and democracy. The voting rights of 16-year-olds should be carefully considered and is far less evident than the other issues.


Ariane Rustichelli, the ASO/OSE director, concluded the conference with a summary of the above discussions. The cantons are traditionally the experimental gardens for (direct) democracy.  Regarding passive and active voting rights for foreigners at municipal and sometimes cantonal levels, mainly French-speaking cantons have taken the lead. E-voting will also first be applied in cantons and, if it is up to the ASO/OSE, at the national level in 2027.


Ariane Rustichelli, director of the ASO/OSE



An inspiring and well-organised conference. The city also hosted the Ukraine conference a few weeks ago. In 1830, Lugano presented as the canton’s capital the most democratic constitution of Switzerland. 


In Locarno, in the same canton, the new peace conference between Germany, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland and Czechoslovakia occurred in 1925. It was a conference of new hope and cooperation. And with success until October 1929.


The closing words of the President of the ASO/OSE were addressed to the four hundred participants and to the 780 000 Swiss abroad. They are ambassadors and active participants, including voting, in the democratic functioning of Switzerland. Their experience abroad can contribute to maintaining and, where necessary, adapting and improving the democratic system in Switzerland and perhaps inspire systems in their countries of residence.


What applies in Switzerland also applies to Swiss people abroad: democracy for the people, but also by the people. The Swiss red pas obliges, also for Swiss abroad.


The Romansh language and culture


A small note: Switzerland has four official languages, and Romansh could be mentioned in one way or another for a good reason. The Grisons/Bündner emigrants and returnees have earned their place in Swiss, European, and world history, if only because of the culinary innovations and the foundation of (world-famous) hotels, restaurants and cafés. 

Furthermore, as one of the cantons with (former) Landsgemeinden, Graubünden is a cradle of direct democracy. Romansh consists of five main idioms, but Rumantsch grischun is applicable and could be a solution

(Further information: https://www.swisscommunity.org)


Impressions of Lugano