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Swiss direct democracy results in widespread discrimination against immigrants

Immigrants from Turkey and former Yugoslavia applying for citizenship in Switzerland were ten times more likely to be rejected than similar applicants from Southern or richer European countries under its system of direct democracy, according to an analysis of official data carried out by the London School of Economics and Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Zurich.

The research has important implications for minorities in many countries where direct democracy is rapidly becoming a popular tool for policy makers keen on devolving power.

Two reports, Who Gets a Swiss Passport? A Natural Experiment in Immigrant Discrimination and Does Direct Democracy Hurt Immigrant Minorities? Evidence from Naturalization Decisions in Switzerland, explain how, until 2003, some municipalities used referendums to decide on the citizenship applications of foreign residents. Dominik Hangartner of LSE and University of Zurich and Jens Hainmueller of MIT evaluated results from 1400 municipalities over a 20 year period, from 1990 to 2010. During the period when citizens were given the vote in secret ballots, they found that naturalization decisions varied dramatically with immigrants’ attributes, which researchers collected from official applicant descriptions that voters received before each referendum. Country of origin determined the applicant’s success much more than any other applicant characteristic, including language skills, integration status and economic credentials. voting

Once the system was changed in 2003 by transferring it to elected politicians, the numbers of successful applicants from Turkey and former Yugoslavia soared. This was not due to higher numbers of requests.

In the first year, the naturalization rate increased by 68 per cent for Turkish applicants and 75 per cent for those from former Yugoslavia. In contrast, the rate for Italian applicants, for example, increased by only 6 per cent.

Dr Hangartner, whose first report is about to be published in the American Political Science Review, said: “Without the change, 12,000 fewer immigrants would have been naturalized over the years 2005 to 2010 alone. While voters in direct democratic contests are free to reject immigrant applicants without having to provide any viable justification, accountable politicians, even if they are similarly prejudiced as the median voter, have to publicly explain and defend their decisions.”

Dr Hangartner, of LSE’s Department of Methodology, added: “Secret referendums provide eligible immigrants with a much higher hurdle than when elected politicians decide. While many praise the virtues of direct democracy as the most democratic means of enacting legislation, others have long cautioned that do-it-yourself government by citizens threatens the interests of political, economic, ethnic, racial, religious or sexual minorities. Our results suggest that it should no longer be used for naturalization decisions in order to reduce the risk of discriminatory rejections.” swiss_passport

The project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, calls on policy makers to rethink direct democracy. The second report concludes: “This is a pressing policy concern, given that today about 30% of all municipalities still rely on referenda voting in citizens assemblies to decide on naturalization applications.

“More broadly, our results underline the importance of the interplay between voter preferences and political institutions in generating policy outcomes. Our study provides perhaps the most direct evidence to date that when faced with the exact same policy decision, direct democracy does suppress minority interests with greater regularity than representative democracy. Moreover, the evidence suggests that direct democracy is most harmful for the most marginalized minorities.”


The reports are available here:


and http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2022064

An English language video explaining the research, produced by University of Zurich, is available here:

To interview Dr Hangartner, please contact Joanna Bale, LSE Press Office, 07831 609679 or j.m.bale@lse.ac.uk

To interview Dr Hainmueller, please contact Kimberly Allen, MIT New Office, 617 253 2702 or 617 852 6094 (m) or allenkc@mit.edu

Posted 30 January 2013