The local citizenship crisis in Switzerland

By Samuel D. Schmid (European University Institute), GLOBALCIT collaborator

Swiss municipalities face what can be called a local citizenship crisis. They struggle to recruit people, especially young ones, who want to hold public office – even though according to a new study one in five young citizens would be ready to be engaged in local politics. Among the proposed remedies are the introduction of candidacy rights for non-citizens as well as for citizens not residing in the municipality. The proposals highlight the strongly republican character of citizenship in Switzerland.

Switzerland has over 2000 municipalities, which wield significant political power, for instance regarding naturalisation as well as local tax rates and public spending. According to a new survey, more than two-thirds of these municipalities struggle to motivate their young citizens (defined as 25- to 35-year-olds) to run for and hold public office to replace retiring local politicians. This is especially true for executive positions. It is estimated that only 760 young politicians occupy a seat in local legislative bodies and governments. The survey indicates further that 20 percent of young citizens would in principle be ready to engage in local politics.

It is important to note that being a politician in Switzerland, except for executives in large municipalities as well as executives on the cantonal and national levels, is not a professional occupation. There is only limited financial compensation, and it is expected that office-holders work just like anyone else when they are not occupied with public duties. Citizens should engage in producing and governing public goods from a perspective of the “normal” population – this is to ensure they do not become “out of touch”.

What to do? Among the proposed remedies are the granting of candidacy rights to non-resident citizens as well as non-citizen residents, greater financial compensation, better accommodation with professional occupations, even more political power for municipalities, active outreach, and the incorporation of local political engagement in a new civil service scheme. Each proposal is shortly discussed in the following.

  1. Granting candidacy rights to non-resident citizens

In most municipalities, only resident citizens can run for public office. In the German-speaking canton of Schwyz, however, there is no residence requirement. Making eligible people in other municipalities in the respective canton would help expand the pool for recruiting people. 

  1. Granting candidacy rights to non-citizen residents

The same holds for expanding the pool to non-citizen residents. This is already practiced in the French-speaking cantons of Fribourg, Jura, Neuchâtel, and Vaud, although the residence requirement can go up to 10 years, part of which has to be spent in the canton (e.g. Jura and Vaud). Some of the municipalities in the German-speaking cantons of Appenzell Outerrhodes, Basel-City, and Grisons, non-citizens can also run for office, and the eligibility criteria can be determined locally.

Expanding this practice, especially in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, as well as reducing requirements in terms of residence duration and permanent residence permits could help unlock the potential of non-citizens. Also, this policy could foster better integration outcomes for immigrants more broadly by having immigrant representatives who are in tune with the concerns of the many non-citizens living in Switzerland.

Comprehensive data resources to compare Swiss cantons regarding these aspects can be found on portals from the nccr on the move:

Of course, one could also think about making citizenship more inclusive in the first place, so that immigrants can naturalise faster and more easily. We know from comparative data that Switzerland is among the most exclusive nations regarding this aspect. And, as can also be gauged in the above data sources, there is relevant inter-cantonal and even inter-municipal variation, because citizenship is granted locally in Switzerland, while national citizenship is derivative.

To compare Switzerland to other countries regarding electoral rights and citizenship laws you can also consult GLOBALCIT databases:

  1. Greater financial compensation

Young candidates could be incentivized to become engaged by greater financial compensation, or by the possibility of having further professional training (such as a Certificate of Advanced Studies, as offered by many Swiss Universities) financed by the municipality.

  1. Better accommodation with professional occupations

A busy professional life is one of the main reasons that keeps young people from bearing even more responsibilities in public life. To better accommodate public office duties with busy professional schedules, one possibility would be to pay local politicians for missing work, beyond what is paid for the political job in general. This is already practiced regarding mandatory military or civil service in Switzerland. Other ideas include campaigns to reach out to companies to communicate the need of human resources in local politics, or to have municipalities offer child care services for young parents while they are occupied with political work.

  1. More political power for municipalities

When you can do more, you may want to do more. For instance, municipalities’ power over, and the amount of, public spending could be increased, especially if the spending levels have not been adjusted to inflation for a long period of time.

  1. Active outreach

Political education in schools, visits to the municipal offices and meetings with young politicians, or local youth assemblies – these instruments could spark the interest of the young. Furthermore, the need for political human resources could be communicated more pro-actively in general; most young people do not appear to know about the pressing need for local politicians. Also, talented young individuals could be approached more personally. Finally, new tools of communication via WhatsApp or Facebook should be used more, for instance to motivate young citizens to participate, first of all, in the many regular local assemblies held throughout Switzerland.

  1. A new civil service scheme

The think-tank Avenir Suisse has proposed a general new mandatory civil service scheme, which would apply to both Swiss citizen resident as well as non-citizen residents holding a permanent residence permit, and would make service mandatory for all genders. Individuals would be able to choose not only (more) traditional military service and (less) traditional civil service in places like asylum seeker centers, homes for the disabled, or with farmers in challenging mountainous environments – but also in public political service on the local level.

The last proposal shows just how republican Swiss citizenship is, and how it might become even more so. Avenir Suisse is a think-tank that is notorious for its radically (neo-)liberal proposals. But the idea of public service for the public good – and the underlying republican civic ideal – is something that is so deeply entrenched in Swiss society and political culture that even this liberal think-tank advocates expanding civil service. However, the local citizenship crisis is also a crisis of the Swiss republican model of representation. Ideals and realities seem to be far apart in this respect. Whether the local political potential of the youth can be unlocked by realizing some proposals discussed here remains to be seen. The survey finding of one in five interested people is an encouraging sign.


Sources and more information in German can be found in this Swiss newspaper article and on this Swiss online news hub.