Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | February 10, 2014

The Swiss Vote and the Limits of Immigration in Wealthy Countries


Over the weekend, Swiss voters narrowly approved a popular initiative* to impose quotas on the number of immigrants living and working in Switzerland. The initiative passed with just over 50% of the vote, against opposition by the country’s Federal Council (the Swiss seven-member executive). Voter turnout was around 56%.

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen notes the Swiss referendum results and comments:

In my view immigration has gone well for Switzerland, both economically and culturally, and I am sorry to see this happen, even apart from the fact that it may cause a crisis in their relations with the European Union. That said, you can take 27% as a kind of benchmark for the limits of immigration in most or all of today’s wealthy countries. I believe that as you approach a number in that range, you get a backlash.

That number will be higher when there is a frontier or a shortage of labor. Those conditions do not generally hold in today’s wealthy countries.

Prof. Cowen points to this Forbes piece from 2012 that supplies some numbers for immigrants as a percentage of population (among other stats) for a number of OECD countries. The numbers for the graph above are drawn from that piece.**

Turning back to the Swiss vote, the map below, making the rounds on Twitter, shows the vote breakdown by canton, with orange indicating a majority “No” vote in a canton, and green indicating a majority “Yes” vote.

The map above shows a vote breakdown that almost exactly mirrors the linguistic breakdown for the country. The dark green area in the south is the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland; the other green areas are almost all mostly German-speaking, and the orange areas in the west are French-speaking. (Compare to the linguistic map reproduced below.) The exceptions to this neat linguistic breakdown in the voting map are the orange areas in the north around the cities of Zurich and Basel; this might indicate an urban vs. rural split in voter attitudes toward immigration (a split that is not unfamiliar in American politics, I believe).

Sprachen CH 2000 EN

Prof. Cowen also points to this incisive post critiquing the referendum results. Please read in full; here’s one point:

The referendum vote has been depicted as just an anti-EU measure. In fact, it applies to all immigrants. Switzerland took in so many asylum seekers from Kosovo during the decade of Serb genocidal atrocities in the 1990s that Albanian is the country’s fourth language. The low pay work – cleaning, hotels, cafés, domestic servants, all-night service stations, sandwich making, construction – once done by southern Europeans is now undertaken by workers from strife torn Muslim nations, Africa, and ex-Soviet republics. They are more visible, notably in Geneva which is Europe’s most multicultural, multi-hued city. (Predictably the Yes vote was higher in cantons with fewer immigrants. Xenophobic fear whipped up by the SVP (Swiss People’s Party, the Blocher-led rightwingers) is similar to UKIP’s appeal in the UK, the FN’s appeal in France and the Wilders operation in the Netherlands. Mainstream parties have been helpless in finding answers to the mass people movement of neo-liberal globalization.)

At the Monkey Cage, Alexandre Afonso (Kings College London) has some good analysis of the initiative vote. Noted: “The most significant feature of the initiative is that it succeeded. Very few initiatives opposed by the government are passed.” Also:

Although immigration has increased considerably since Switzerland opened its labor market to E.U. workers in 2002, the relationship between “objective” economic or labor market factors and attitudes towards immigration is far from straightforward, as the data above suggest. I would argue that the role of political elites is a key factor. The pivotal players are the center-right parties (Liberals and Christian-Democrats), which, according to the final polls before the referendum, failed to mobilize support among their own voters.

Although an alliance between center-right parties, employers, Social-Democrats and trade unions had always been able to defeat the conservative right in their attempts to impose immigration control and cut ties with the E.U., this alliance no longer seems as cohesive as before. Center-right parties have lost a considerable number of voters to the Swiss People’s Party over the past 20 years, and they have sought to get them back by playing on the turf of the radical right. They have championed much more restrictive stances on naturalization, asylum and extra-E.U. migration. At the same time, they have sought to keep their strong commitment to E.U. free movement, which is enormously important for their allies in business and for employers. They have essentially signaled to voters that immigration is a big problem, while arguing that EU migration, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of migrants in Switzerland, is not.

This mixed message doesn’t seem to have convinced voters.


* As the post at the Monkey Cage notes, “There are two major institutions of direct democracy in Switzerland: the optional referendum and the popular initiative. The optional referendum allows any political group to challenge a law passed in Parliament in a referendum, if 50,000 citizens petition for it. Popular initiatives, like the one that succeeded Sunday, provide for a vote on a constitutional amendment “from below” if 100,000 citizens ask for it. Very few popular initiatives are accepted. Out of the 187 popular initiatives voted on since 1893 (and usually always championed by fringe groups without much weight in parliament), only 20 were accepted. The success rate for optional referendums is about 50 percent.”
** I have left off Luxembourg because — let’s be honest — it’s a weird little outlier country, and it’s numbers do not necessarily speak as much to larger trends. IMHO. YMMV.

Image Credits: (1) Chart by PAF, based on data from OECD, via Forbes; (2) Twitter; (3) Wikimedia Commons.



  1. On the other hand, I’m not sure how you square Cowen’s “27% as a kind of benchmark” such that “as you approach a number in that range, you get a backlash” with the fact that the “Yes” vote in Switzerland was higher in those cantons with fewer immigrants.

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