A Correlation between Language and Voting on Immigration in Swiss Referendums

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in March 2014]

Swiss_referendum_2014On  February 9, 2014, Swiss citizens voted in a referendum on three issues, one of which concerned possible restrictions on immigration. Known as the initiative “Against Mass Immigration”, the proposal was launched by the national conservative Swiss People’s Party. Its aim is to limit immigration through quotas, as was the case before the signing of bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the European Union. (The other two questions on the referendum ballot involved abortion and the financing and expansion of the rail network.) The immigration restriction proposal passed by a very narrow margin, with 50.3% of participating voters supporting the measure, which was also approved by the required majority of cantons. The proposal requires the Swiss government to either renegotiate the Swiss-EU agreement of free movement of people within three years or to revoke it. The measure also mandates re-introduction of strict quotas for various immigration categories, and imposes limits on the ability of foreigners to bring in their family members to live in Switzerland, to access Swiss social security benefits, and to request asylum.


Interestingly, the geographical pattern of the referendum results follows along the country’s linguistic divides. The inhabitants of the French-speaking part of Switzerland, particularly in such cantons as Genève, Jura, Vaud, and Neuchâtel, were the least eager to impose such immigration restrictions: 40% or less voted for the proposed measure. The only non-French-speaking canton in that category is heavily urban Basel-Stadt, with a 39% “yes” vote. The two large cantons that are split between French- and German-speaking areas—Wallis/Valais and Freiburg/Fribourg—occupy the intermediate category, with 48.3% and 48.5% voting for the measure. Only two entirely German-speaking cantons showed similar results: Zürich with 47.3% and Zug with 49.9%. The rest of the German-speaking cantons were more enthusiastic about restricting immigration, with more than half of the population supporting the proposal. The strongest anti-immigration vote came from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where 68.2% of the voters wanted to impose restrictions. Only two of the German-speaking cantons gave over 60% of the votes for the measure: Appenzell Innerrhoden (63.5%) and Schwyz (63.1%).

Contrary to expectations, the proportion of immigrant population in a given canton did not correlate with the vote on the anti-immigration proposal. Generally, the cantons that gave the fewest votes for the proposal (deep red on the map above) have a relatively high proportion of resident foreign nationals: Genève has 39.2% foreigners, Neuchâtel 32.1%, and Vaud 28%. However, Jura, which is in the same voting category, has only 11.8% foreign born residents. The proportion of immigrants in the four cantons that gave the proposal between 45 and 50% of the votes (pink on the map above) ranges between 16.65% in Freiburg/Fribourg and 23.7% in Zürich. Likewise, Bern and Graubüngen, whose voting patterns were similar (51.1% and 50.6%, respectively), differ significantly in the proportion of immigrant population: 23.2% in Bern and 14.84% in Graubüngen. The difference with respect to the actual foreign-born population between cantons that were most eager to impose restrictions on immigration is even more drastic: slightly over a quarter of the population in Ticino are immigrants, whereas in Appenzell Innerrhoden less than 10% of the population are foreign born.


Also of note is that fact that the same geographical patterns of support for vs. opposition to immigration was observed in earlier referendums on this issue over the past decade. For example, the results of the February 8, 2009 vote, which involved extending the freedom of movement for workers within the European Union to Bulgaria and Romania (which joined the EU on January 1, 2007), were quite similar, with the French-speaking areas voting most concertedly for the proposal and the Italian-speaking Ticino voting most strongly against it. Of all the German-speaking cantons, Schwyz and Appenzell Innerrhoden cast the most votes against the measure, joined by Glarus, another relatively small, rural German-speaking canton. Similarly, in the September 25, 2005 referendum on freedom of movement of the people of the new Member States of the European Union, the French-speaking cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel most strongly supported the proposal, by over 65%, while the Italian-speaking Ticino gave the lowest percentage of votes, only 36.1%, with Schwyz and Appenzell Innerrhoden once again being the most anti-immigration cantons in the German-speaking region.. In the September 26, 2004 referendum about easing procedures for citizenship for second-generation immigrants aged 14-24, French-speaking cantons led the “yes” vote, with 67.8% in Genève, 54.8% in Jura, 67.4% in Vaud, and 64.8% in Neuchâtel. Appenzell Innerrhoden and Schwys gave the fewest votes in favor of the proposal: 24% and 24.4%, respectively. Unlike in other immigration-related referendums, Ticino occupied an intermediate position, with 40.9% voting “yes”.


Intriguingly, this geographical pattern in immigration-related votes does not extend to other issues, as can be seen from the comparison of the electoral maps above with the four maps from additional Swiss referendums, posted on the left, on a wide range of issues including spatial planning, executive pay, family planning, and legalization of the personal consumption and production of cannabis.


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