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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Swiss democracy gone mad?
Swiss town
The Swiss vote on everything - even street lighting
By Imogen Foulkes in Emmen, Switzerland

Milunka Milovanovic has had a hectic social calendar recently. She and her family are busy trying to persuade their local community of Emmen, near Lucerne, that they deserve Swiss nationality.

Now they have to convince Emmen's 10,000 voters

In Switzerland, 20% of the population is foreign, but you can only vote if you are Swiss. Switzerland has the strictest nationality rules in Europe - you have to have lived in the country at least 12 years,

Emmen is a small industrial town and, like many similar Swiss communities, it recruited foreign workers in the 1970s and 80s. Among them were the young Milovanovics: 21 years ago they arrived from Yugoslavia.

Now they and their three children, who were all born here, would like to be citizens of their adopted homeland.

The Milovanovics have met all the legal requirements for citizenship: They have paid 1,000 francs for their application to be considered, they have been interviewed by the local council, they have passed German tests, and demonstrated their understanding of the Swiss way of life.

But now they have to convince Emmen's 10,000 voters. In order to help people make up their minds, Emmen town council has sent a brochure to every home: In it the hopeful faces of the applicants stare out. Beneath the photographs their jobs, hobbies and reasons for wanting to be Swiss are listed.

Public test

Milunka Milovanovic, we are told, works in an old people's home, and in her free time likes to walk in the country. She wants to be Swiss, she says, because she has lived in Switzerland more than half her life.

But all this is not enough: The local political parties in Emmen have been holding meetings so that voters can ask the applicants questions.

The meeting organised by the right-wing Swiss people's party becomes a shameful spectacle. The five Milovanovics are placed on a stage. Rows of upright Swiss voters stare up at them. The questions come thick and fast.

  • Who would you cheer for at a football match - Switzerland or Yugoslavia?
  • What language do you dream in?
  • Why do you really want a Swiss passport - isn't it just because you think you can get a better life here?

    The Milovanovics answer everything patiently, meekly, with great courtesy. But why submit to such a humiliating public examination? After all, the meetings are supposed to be voluntary.

    Milunka smiles wearily before hurrying off to the next meeting.

    "Well, if it has to be, it has to be,'" she says. "We'll just put up with it."

    Locals' whims

    There is good reason for her stoicism; last year when Emmen voted on applications for nationality, 48 out of a total of 56 were rejected. Not a single person from the Balkans was accepted.

    Ethnic origin is not supposed to influence citizenship decisions. But Switzerland has accepted a lot of asylum seekers from former Yugoslavia, and, human nature being what it is, many people now think there are too many people from the Balkans in their country, and are expressing their concern at the ballot box.

    It is democracy gone sour, a way to express prejudice, and punish innocent people

    But the victims are not asylum seekers at all, who cannot apply for citizenship, but families like the Milovanovics, who live here permanently.

    After watching the goings on in Emmen with increasing unease, I asked a Swiss friend whether it would not be better to take the whole nationality issue away from the local communities and make the decision anonymously at federal level. He too is repelled by the prejudices expressed in Emmen, but he looks at me in surprise.

    "That could never happen in Switzerland. The people always have the final say," he said.

    Another Swiss acquaintance related with approval that she regularly rejected applications.

    "We had one woman who applied," she explained. "She'd been here for 20 years, but you know she never said hello to me on the street, and she didn't join any of our lady's clubs -so I voted against her."

    Personal view

    Is this really what Swiss democracy is supposed to be? Neighbour judging neighbour, over real or imagined slights?

    Switzerland has been my home for almost 11 years now, and it is in so many ways a very civilised, friendly and cultured country.

    But the example of Emmen depresses me, because it is democracy gone sour, a way to express prejudice, and punish innocent people. But because in theory it is democracy, no one, it seems, wants to challenge it.

    "People would vote the same way in your country if they could," said one Swiss friend.

    I am sure many would, but they do not have the right to, and quite frankly after watching the ordeal of the Milovanovics I think I prefer a more limited democracy.

    The irony of the whole miserable Emmen episode is that if the Milovanovic family's application for citizenship is rejected, they will still live permanently in Switzerland, doing the same jobs, going to the same schools and visiting the same shops.

    But they will be doing it all in the knowledge that for some reason their neighbours did not think they were good enough to be Swiss, and worthy enough to vote alongside them.

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    24 Sep 00 | Europe
    Swiss throw out immigrant limit
    05 Mar 01 | Europe
    Swiss say 'no' to EU
    16 May 01 | Country profiles
    Country profile: Switzerland
    16 Jan 01 | Europe
    Timeline: Switzerland
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