Gemeindes in Lucerne accused of discrimination in citizenship applications

Gemeindes in Lucerne accused of discrimination in citizenship applications

In many Swiss cantons, applying for citizenship means facing a vote in your local council (Gemeinde). This process is now facing renewed scrutiny after a top expert accused some councils in Lucerne of discrimination when choosing to refuse citizenship.

Switzerland the only country to decide citizenship locally

According to 20 minuten, Switzerland is the only nation in the world where naturalisations are ultimately decided at the local level. Every town, community or village has a say on who becomes Swiss and who doesn’t.

Community meetings have a lot of leeway when deciding the reasons for accepting or refusing citizenship. This has been the source of many controversial and strange reasons why Swiss citizenship applications have been rejected in the past. 

Applicants from outside northern Europe face discrimination in ballot voting

No place is this more clear than in Canton Lucerne. Writing in the Luzerner Zeitung, Dominik Hangartner, from ETH in Zurich, found that in cases where citizenship applications are decided by a public vote (municipal assemblies), candidates are 60 percent less likely to receive a Swiss passport than in those decided by a closed committee. 

The reason for this, he explained, is that committees must be justified in their reasons to reject a candidate, while public assemblies do not. Hangartner noted that relevant factors such as learning a Swiss language, length of stay or level of integration don’t seem to play a role in public decisions.

In addition, when analysing naturalisations in 1.400 councils between 1991 and 2009, Hangartner found that “the proportion of rejections in ballot votes for people from Turkey or the former Yugoslavia is 40 percent higher than for an equally well-qualified person from a northern or western European country.”

Experts and politicians call for public citizenship votes to be banned

Cantonal councillor Stephanie Sager has now called for a motion to ban municipal assembly votes on citizenship. Sager hopes to reform the Civil Rights Act in Lucerne so that the 30 councils that still use public ballots are forced to switch to the committee system.

"Naturalisations at the municipal assembly already harbour a risk of discrimination for the applicants. For example, because of their nationality," Sager said. Hangartner agreed, stating, "If you want to prevent discrimination in the issue of Swiss passports, municipal meetings should no longer be used to decide on individual naturalisations."

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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