Disadvantaged by the citizens' assembly


When citizens' assemblies decide on naturalisation applications, the rejection rate is substantially higher than when the same decision is taken by municipal councils or legislatures. Applicants from former Yugoslavia and Turkey are particularly disadvantaged, as a study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation shows.

Which immigrants are naturalised by Swiss municipalities and which are not? Do voters decide differently on such issues than elected politicians? In order to answer these questions, two political scientists, Jens Hainmueller from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dominik Hangartner from the London School of Economics and the University of Zurich, analysed naturalisation decisions taken in over 1400 Swiss municipalities between 1990 and 2010.

In 1990, 80 percent of municipalities decided on naturalisation applications by direct democracy: voters voted on applications either at the ballot box or in the citizens' assemblies. In 2003, the Swiss Federal Court ruled that rejection through ballot box voting is unconstitutional. The main argument was that every rejected applicant has the right of appeal, and that in a ballot box vote, no grounds for rejection exist against which an appeal could be lodged. Subsequently, many municipalities switched from a system of direct democracy to one of representative democracy for such applications and transferred the naturalisation decision to the municipal council, the legislature or a specialised commission. Only about 30 percent of municipalities still naturalise applicants by citizens' assembly.

Naturalisation rate doubled

Of the 1400 municipalities studied by the authors, about 600 changed their system. The results were striking. After the changeover, naturalisation rates soared – by an average of 50 percent in the first year and by a further 50 percent in the second year and the period thereafter. In other words, the rate doubled in absolute terms from two to four percent of the foreigners living in Switzerland who met the eligibility criteria for naturalisation (including time spent in the country). As co-author Dominik Hangartner explains, "Without the change, some 12,000 fewer immigrants would have been naturalised between 2005 and 2010." Since it can take a few years before a decision is taken on naturalisation applications, this doubling cannot be ascribed to an increase in the number of applications.

The change from direct to representative democracy had a particularly strong impact on the naturalisation chances of immigrants from Turkey and former Yugoslavia. Whereas their rate increased by 68 and 75 percent, the rate for Italians and Germans increased by only 6 and 34 percent respectively. This finding suggests that immigrants from Turkey and former Yugoslavia are systematically disadvantaged at the ballot box or in citizens' assemblies.

Discrimination against Turks and citizens of former Yugoslavia

Hangartner and Hainmueller provided clear evidence of this discrimination in another study. The two researchers investigated the naturalisation decisions that 44 municipalities took at the ballot box between 1970 and 2003. They found that factors such as degree of integration, language skills or time spent in the country hardly played a role. Given comparable circumstances, one in every three Turks or citizens of former Yugoslavia was rejected in balloting, whereas the figure for Italians and Germans was one in thirty. Discrimination was strongest in municipalities where the proportion of SVP (Swiss People's Party) voters was particularly large. These were also the municipalities where naturalisation rates showed the greatest rise after the change in system in 2003.

Why do municipal councils and legislatures reject fewer applications than voters? "It has nothing to do with political views, since the councils are barely more left-wing in their composition than the population that elected them," explains Jens Hainmueller. The researchers therefore interviewed more than 200 municipal secretaries. Many of them assume that the elected politicians realise that they have to have good reasons for rejecting an application. If a decision is contested, a successful appeal will bounce back on an elected politician, whereas this makes no difference to anonymous voters.

Switch to representative democratic procedures

"Direct democratic procedures are a much higher barrier for eligible immigrants who wish to become citizens than a decision left in the hands of elected politicians," says Hangartner, summing up. He recommends that the one third of Swiss municipalities that still naturalise citizens through a citizens' assembly should change their procedure: "In order to minimise the risk of discriminatory rejections, naturalisation should be effected by municipal councillors, legislatures or specialised commissions."

On this subject



Dr Dominik Hangartner
Department of Methodology
London School of Economics
Columbia House
London WC2A 2AE United Kingdom
Phone +44 (0)20 7955 6982
E-mail d.hangartner@lse.ac.uk