Election fever

One might think that going to the polls is nothing special in Switzerland, since we do that several times a year anyway.

However, this year is the federal general election: every four years, elections are held for the entire federal Parliament. The Council of States, the upper house, has 46 members and each canton has two. (Except for the half-cantons of Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Appenzeller Innerrhoden, and Appenzeller Ausserrhoden, which logically each have one representative.) The National Council (lower house) has 200 seats and these are allocated to cantons according to their population – but every canton gets at least one seat.

Fortunately, the federal government has a helpful, and entertaining, website in four languages (the four official Swiss ones, plus English) to explain everything. There is even a truly awesome quiz, where I learned that (yay! cantonal autonomy!) most cantons use a system of proportional representation to choose their representatives, BUT six cantons do first-past-the-post. 

In the 2015 general election, turnout was 48.5% of eligible voters. This seems low, but considering that vibrant democracies such as the US calculate turnout on the basis of registered voters (which in turn, is a fraction of those eligible to vote), almost half is pretty respectable.

The canton of Schaffhausen didn’t think so, and requires its eligible residents to vote: those who don’t face a fine of CHF 6, which will get you a tall cappuccino at an unnamed international coffee chain. I wonder if that is a sufficient punishment to insure high turnout in Schaffhausen.

On the positive reinforcement side, Swiss voters could for the very first time mark themselves as having voted on Facebook. 

For my first ever Swiss general election, I got to vote for 18 people: two names for the Council of States, and 16 votes to fill the National Council seats granted to my canton of residence.

This was also my first experience with party lists. Several weeks before the final polling date of October 20, I received a fat packet in the post.

This contained a brochure explaining voting rules in general, two packets full of official party propaganda (from those parties that provided it), and my ballot papers: a simple blue paper with space for me to write in two names for the Council of States; and a whopping booklet of 36 pre-printed (and one blank) party lists for the National Council.

This is not something to be taken lightly. 

Choosing two names from ten for the Council of States wasn’t so hard. After that, I had to study the rules alongside my stack of materials.

For the party faithful, you just need to tear out a pre-printed list with the party’s 16 anointed candidates and put in in your envelope. But what if I’m a Social Democrat (SP) voter? There are five SP lists to choose from: standard; labor unions; queer*feminist; JUSO, the firebrand young Socialists; migrants (i.e., naturalized Swiss). The Christian Democrats (CVP) were worse, with nine different lists covering regions within the canton in addition to the youth wing and the 60+.

An election poster from the SVP with some typical “Swiss People.” They may have been required to wear different glasses and ties for this photo.

There were the Liberals (FDP) the Greens, the Green Liberals, the nationalist right Swiss People’s Party (SVP)– never vote for a party whose title includes the word “people” – the Civic Democrats (BDP), the Pirate Party, and the Independents (DU).

And a blank list where you can fill in the 16 names of your choice. Now we’re talking.

But wait: you are allowed to amend the pre-printed ballot paper! You can delete a name (streichen) by crossing it through. That person won’t get one of your 16 points, but a point goes to the party listed on the top of the ballot. You can accumulate (kumulieren), which means giving two votes to one or more candidates, simply by writing in that person’s name again on one of the lines. Achtung! make sure the candidate is not already listed twice (some parties do this), or your ballot is invalidated. You can split your vote (panaschieren), by writing the names of candidates from other lists on your ballot paper. 

You can in fact do all those things on one ballot paper, which then looks rather messy. Important is not listing more than 16 names (or the number permitted by each canton)– fewer names is fine. The party noted at the top of the list then gets the blank lines as generic party votes.

Completed ballot papers are sealed in the provided envelope, which goes into another envelope with your personal voter ID document, and is delivered to the box in the town hall. The counting starts, by hand, at 10:00 a.m. in our village. I now understand why the position of “vote counter” is an elected one (my village has three, with three alternates) with great responsibility.

In the end, I went back to my blank paper and created a custom list, because I like to be difficult. I used names from five different lists, gave one person two votes, left three lines blank, and wrote a party name at the top so that said party would get three more votes from me. I think I did this right; I hope so. 

That was the year that was

And how fast was it? We’ve been in a whirl since July.

Frankly, I’m still reeling from the fact that we went to the biometric data center in Aarau on a Monday, got pictures taken, irises and fingerprints scanned, and then ON WEDNESDAY we received our red passports and national ID cards. Clearly A-post was in use.

And there were some emotional moments of transition, like when I had to surrender my Ausländerausweis (foreigner’s ID card). Forever. I took it to the town clerk, it was recorded and destroyed. More about that later.

We celebrated with a “red and white” party, complete with a Swiss trivia test; name-the-canton flags; Swiss wine, beer, and fresh apple cider from a local farmer; and huge blocks of cheese.

Say cheese.

We borrowed industrial-strength raclette ovens from Sepp the Cheese Guy and a spent a sunny summer afternoon with friends and neighbors in the garden, melting cheese. Our guests were a good mix of foreigners, dual citizens, and Swiss persons. We have arrived.

Then there’s voting.

I’ve been voting a lot since becoming a card-carrying Eidgenossin. In the last half year, there have been two referendum weekends and one town meeting. Each of these occasions requires a great deal of reading beforehand: we get comprehensive pamphlets mailed to us at home, along with the personalized ballot paper.

It’s a fair amount of work to keep up with the issues at hand, and form an intelligent opinion at the right time. It’s no wonder that voter participation in Switzerland is, well, modest. According to the Federal Office of Statistics, 43.7% of eligible voters did their duty in 2018. This is the average from four separate polling days, which covered a total of 10 different proposals. Note that’s ten at the federal level: your mileage may vary, depending on which canton you live in and whether you have any local referenda.

The voter receives a lot of help to figure it out.

For example, here’s what we voted on in September. At the federal level, federal authorities won the right to coordinate bicycle routes across Switzerland (as is already done for hiking routes). Voters rejected a proposal to create more rules for food producers in Switzerland regarding sustainability, and to require imported food to meet the same standards. Fortunately, a proposal to give Swiss agriculture priority by raising tariffs on certain products (against existing trade agreements) was also rejected.  In our canton, voters also rejected a proposal to more than double the tax rates for high earners (colloquially known as “the millionaire’s tax”, though it would have kicked in well under that amount).

In November, voters rejected both an initiative to raise subsidies for farmers who leave the horns on their cows and goats (here’s a cool video explaining it from the federal government, in German), plus a bizarre nationalist proposal to give Swiss law precedence over international law. However, a measure to allow social insurance detectives to investigate people receiving benefits was passed. At the cantonal level, voters rejected a measure that would require the canton to pay private forest owners for taking care of their woods, and narrowly passed a change to our canton’s constitution that will allow Swiss citizens living abroad to be allowed to vote for the representatives of the canton in the upper house of parliament. (This could come in handy for us later.)

And in our town meeting in December, we approved next year’s budget, accepted new statutes regarding child care outside the family, and voted in a bunch of new citizens. I made my debut at the microphone by telling a member of the nationalist right Swiss People’s Party that his counterproposal for changing the subsidy scale for child care was ridiculous, then prodded the town council to create a committee to explore all-day child care and enrichment programs in cooperation with the school.

I’ve been waiting long enough to make some noise. However, this is unusual behavior for the “nouveau Suisse”, it seems. At the requisite apéro after the town meeting, my wine glass was frequently refilled by town councilors and fellow villagers as discussion continued. 2019 here we come.


Suddenly, things started happening very quickly

Just as I had settled down to wait, a letter arrived from the village (which I opened promptly) to tell us to go online to submit our passport applications. Already?

So I did and we got appointments at the cantonal office for passports and identity cards in Aarau (half an hour’s drive, 20 minutes with the train) on Monday. We could have gone to have our biometric data recorded even sooner, but boy has been at scout camp.

The letter also contained a document* informing us that a Heimatschein for each of us was deposited at the registry in Würenlos. This is an essential document for a Swiss person. It officially states that Würenlos is our Heimatort, forever. Now we are officially from here, and that will be noted in all our Swiss documentation (our passports, IDs and other legal documents) from now on. If we move to another town in Switzerland, we have to deposit our Heimatschein at the civil registry of that community.

Until 2012, the Heimatort was the place that had to take you in if you had nowhere else to go: it was the town on your Heimatschein that had to pay your social benefits if you had fallen through all the (numerous) social safety nets.

While non-Swiss documents generally list one’s place of birth, the Swiss ones don’t. My new passport and identity card will not state that I was born in Chicago USA. Only my Heimatort: Würenlos. Which is odd. It’s as if I didn’t exist before. Würenlos as the place of my re-birth as a Swiss person?



*and, of course, a bill: CHF 64.50

Members of the cooperative society of the oath

A couple weeks ago we got a letter from our canton. It even sat in the pile of mail to be opened for a few days because we were busy, the school year was drawing to a close, it was hot, and was probably just something about taxes that no one felt responsible for at that moment.

It turned out to be a letter informing us that the cantonal legislature (Grosser Rat) had approved our application for citizenship, and the federal interior ministry had agreed with our village and canton. Welcome to the Eidgenossenschaft!

Don’t bother trying to translate this mouthful. It’s a seemingly German word only used in Switzerland. Literally, the cooperative society of the oath. This refers to the founding of the confederation on the mountain plateau at Rütli which is commemorated every August 1.

In fact, we’ve been Eidgenossen since June 5, 2018, but the canton sent the letter with B-post. We have two classes of mail here, A-post (domestic mail guaranteed to arrive the next day) and B-post (not, but costs 15 cents less). As a taxpayer, I am proud of my canton for showing me it is saving money. But: really?

The letter itself was a charming mixture of congratulatory what-passes-for-emotion, official-ese, and valuable information about what happens next. Like: don’t run to your village clerk to apply for a passport just yet, since it takes about a month for all the documents to filter back to the permanent databases where they belong. Considering that my village took half a year to send the stuff up to Aarau in the first place, this is not encouraging.

Happy new year

Over the holidays, we received a letter from our canton’s interior ministry confirming their receipt of our application for citizenship. I almost forgot! In case any of my five readers have also forgotten, the action left off when we were granted the “assurance of local citizenship” back in June 2017, voted on by our fellow (can say that now) Würenloser. We are not sure why it took our town’s administration six months to forward the dossier to the cantonal authorities, or why it took the canton six months to acknowledge receipt.

What we do know, however, is the approximate timetable for the rest of the process. The canton has to examine our case, then obtain federal permission to put the matter before the cantonal parliament. The 140-member legislature will then vote and we will be informed about its decision in writing. This will take about 10 months, the letter informs us.

Before this ponderous stone can be set into motion, we must do two things: pay the cantonal and federal administrative fees (2,025 Swiss francs), and provide a current (i.e. not older than 14 days) Betreibungsregisterauszug for all applicants over 18.

This wonderful word describes a document peculiar to Switzerland which is required for almost any transaction. It is similar to a credit report, in that it states whether you have any unpaid bills. One obtains this at the local Betreibungsamt for a small administrative fee (17 francs per). The clerk consults the federal computerized registry and prints out a document that either lists one’s financial transgressions or certifies there are none.

The nasty thing about this system is that anyone can file a claim against anyone. Like if my neighbor decides I owe him 100 francs because he watered my garden while I was on vacation. Which I never promised, so don’t pay. Now he can file a claim against me at the Betreibungsamt. No legal claim is required, and the debt (and its validity) are settled later during the proceedings. Until then, you have a black mark in your registry.

This process is entirely separate from insolvency or bankruptcy, although proceedings against a legal entity can result in a bankruptcy being declared. On the personal level, you may have possessions confiscated or part of your wages seized to meet the demands against you.

According to the Swiss Federal Statistics Office, the number of Betreibungen hit a record high in 2016, with 2,938,650 registered cases.  With a population of 8.372 million, that’s a lot of financial bickering going on.

We’re clean, though. And what my spouse found amusing is the “hurry up and wait” nature of the request for documentation: we had to return a fresh Betreibungsregisterauszug (because who knows what sins we might have amassed since the last one we filed 9 months ago!) within 10 days, or the entire process would have been stopped.

Last box ticked; now we wait.

All politics are local

Every four years, Swiss municipalities have Gesamterneuerungswahlen, which is one of those delightful German words that we English speakers would just call general elections. That fails to capture the cleansing sense of the German expression, which implies that everything is being pitched out and it’s a great chance for a new start.

This being Switzerland, we don’t want to rock the boat too much. Almost everyone who’s been serving on the town council, school board, tax board, finance commission, etc. campaigns again for their seat more or less under the motto “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The national parties see a chance to shove a new face or two into the lowest compartment of Swiss political office to see if he or she has what it takes to grow into the national league. And then there are the true citizen politicians who want to get up to their elbows in local issues without being defined by a national platform.

As a newly-hatched citizen of Würenlos, I couldn’t wait to throw myself into the fray. Over the summer I began frequenting meetings of a local initiative, sort of “En Marche Würenlos”. A few evenings of discussions about where we were on the right-to-left political spectrum were inconclusive. The group seems to be united by a desire for fresh blood in the elected ranks, and a sturdy pragmatic streak. Our initiative is fronting three candidates – all women, as it happens. One for the town council, one for the school board, and one for the position of vote counter. (This is not a minor position considering how often one votes here.)

It’s been an interesting lesson in Swissness: finding the line between being innovative but not too radical, and the difficulty of getting anything done when all decisions must be a consensus. Still, we rolled up our sleeves and created a campaign, complete with slogan and events; got supportive letters to the editor published in local papers; put up signs throughout the village one early Saturday morning. The town knows who we are. This weekend, we’ll find out how many of the 4,000-and-a-few voters dare to vote for the new initiative. I won’t be among them, however: though a citizen of my town, the right to vote comes only when I’ve received the federal confirmation. Ah well.

My candidacy for the school board in 2021 is assured, though.

We are now proud citizens of Würenlos

At the June 8 town meeting held in the multi-purpose sport hall, 110 qualified voters (out of 4,169) turned up on a warm summer evening to decide our fate.

We’re especially pleased to have helped get out the youth vote: two of those present had recently turned 18, so were voting for the very first time. That’s almost 2% of the vote! So much for apathetic youth! (One was our neighbor’s son, and the other a leader from my son’s scout troop. Love these small towns.)

After the protocol from December’s meeting, and the auditor’s report on the 2016 budget were approved, we all received a detailed slide show on what happened (down to the last franc) with the loans approved for building a new relay station, laying new cables and resurfacing several streets. I am really starting to feel the burden of information and responsibility about to be conferred upon us. Being an active citizen in Switzerland’s direct democracy is a lot of work.

Finally, agenda point five: we are introduced individually and asked to stand. My son smiled and waved at the audience, which won points for sheer cuteness. Then all nine candidates were escorted from the room. Since we could still hear the proceedings from the lobby, we were herded into what my son delightedly informed us was the teachers’ locker room.

Before our little Croatian-Kosovaran-Spanish-American-German group could get over the indignity, we were summoned back into the auditorium. To applause. And members of the town council shaking our hands and handing each of us a set of flags (national, cantonal, municipal). It was rather touching, actually.

After a couple more agenda points, and the usual suspects stepping up to the microphone with some of the usual questions, the meeting was adjourned for the apéro. Which anyone who has spent any time in Switzerland knows is an unassailable part of the culture, and transcends the language regions. Local wine and Speckzopf (savory bread with bacon) was served by members of the town’s small animal breeders’ club.

And now that we’re in? Well, we are so far merely citizens of our village. This automatically confers cantonal as well as federal citizenship, but we have to wait for our papers to clank through the machinery before we can get our red passports. This can take two months to two years.

And it’s June already

What seemed like a ridiculously long time to wait has actually gone by quickly. Suddenly it’s June, and The Big Vote is next week. We received our summons, eh, invitation in the mail and all three of us will be at the Town Meeting next Thursday to smile and look wholesome until Agenda Point Five. At which point we must leave the room while our fate is decided by the townspeople. After that we get to wave little flags and get our pictures taken for the weekly paper, or something like that.

Presuming we’re voted in. Statistically, only about one percent of citizenship candidates in Switzerland are denied. And an informal discussion at the Friday-nights-only local bar yielded the information that as long as anyone present could remember, no one has ever been rejected in Würenlos.

Speaking of votes and rejections, the ten voracious followers of this blog might have been wondering about the outcome of the February referendum and Radio Energy’s civic education project. The simplified citizenship referendum passed with a 60% yes vote.

And a nice young lady from Köniz near Bern won the radio contest to have her citizenship costs paid for— despite the tabloid headline, Ana Jerkovic did not “win the red passport.”

According to press reports, the 19-year-old Croatian was born in Switzerland and is doing her apprenticeship in the federal administration. A model future citizen, then.

However, Radio Energy has failed to live up to the words of its star moderator Roman Kilchsperger, who claimed that the contest was to teach listeners about how the naturalization process works in Switzerland. Since the winner was announced, there has been no follow-up reporting on Ana’s journey through the bureaucratic mills.

Civic education

Support from an unexpected ally: Radio NRJ (you guessed it, Energy), a commercial pop radio station, is out to educate its Swiss listeners about Becoming Swiss.

“Energy raffles off Swiss citizenship!” is their gag of the week. Obviously a radio station has nothing to do with the naturalization process; if you read the fine print, you’ll see that they offer to pay the costs associated with the process for a candidate who meets the legal criteria.

Never one to miss a trend, Radio Energy is holding “castings” to find their ideal candidate. And the boulevard press is up in arms at this provocation.

Radio Energy moderator Roman Kilchsperger, who is a member of the Swiss entertainment elite often referred to as the Cervelat-Prominenz (lit.”famous hot dogs”, fig. world-famous in Switzerland), defended his gag in press interviews. We can all learn something, he says: how does naturalization work? Who checks their background and decides? What does the whole process cost?

Mr Kilchsperger and the Energy team did not come up with this idea from reading my blog, alas. The attention-getting scheme comes ahead of a referendum on February 12 that would grant third-generation residents a simplified naturalization process. These issues tend to bring out the word in populist politics, as one might guess. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has outdone itself with a poster that scares not just voters, but also children.

Third-generation residents: this would be my ten-year-old son’s children, assuming we would choose not to naturalize but just stay living here because it’s nice. And my son who was born and grew up here, and stays living here because it’s the home he knows. His children, who would be born here and socialized here. That’s the third generation.

And the referendum isn’t suggesting passports at birth or anything radical like that. The simplified process means candidates must be well-integrated, speak a national language, have been born in Switzerland, have a permanent residence permit, attended school for at least five years in Switzerland and under 25 years of age. One of their parents must have lived at least ten years in Switzerland including at least five years of school. Plus a grandparent must also have either been born in Switzerland or have been granted permanent residency.

Recent statistics suggest Switzerland currently has 24,650 third-generation immigrants who meet these criteria. (Dear SVP: I doubt any of them are burka-wearers.)



Happy New Year

What a nice way to start the year: we received the minutes of the last town council meeting of 2016, in which our case was discussed.

Our little family is unanimously recommended to be put to the vote at the next general assembly on June 8, 2017.

(Yes, that’s right. Our neighbors, parents of our son’s classmates, the church ladies will all be voting on whether we get to join the Red Passport Club. Our town has 6,360 inhabitants, eligible to vote are 4,130 of them. Voter participation tends to hover around 50% for national issues; the town meeting tends to draw a few hundred.)

Nothing more to do, then. Except pay our taxes, be good neighbors, don’t commit any crimes. At least until June.

(if any of my fellow villagers are reading this: WAR NUR EIN WITZ.)