Marc Helbling, Citizenship, Right-Wing Populism and the Direct Democratic Dilemma in:

Marcel Alexander Niggli (Ed.)

Right-wing Extremism in Switzerland, page 102 - 112

National and international Perspectives

1. Edition 2009, ISBN print: 978-3-8329-4241-0, ISBN online: 978-3-8452-1662-1,

Series: Studien zur Schweizer Politik, vol. 2

Bibliographic information
102 8. Citizenship, Right-Wing Populism and the Direct Democratic Dilemma Marc Helbling Switzerland has one of the most peculiar naturalization regimes in the world: Foreigners are naturalized at the local level, and municipalities are accorded the right to determine under which formal procedures and criteria foreign residents are naturalized. Until recently, the entire population of some municipalities made decisions over naturalization either at the ballot box or by secret ballot during municipal assemblies. These procedures led to high rejection rates of applicants for naturalization and have led to many political and judicial debates. This paper tackles the question why direct democratic institutions should have discriminatory effects on foreign residents who want to become Swiss citizens. I investigate to what extent such institutions provide an opportunity for right-wing populists to mobilize against foreigners and lead ordinary people to behave in xenophobic ways. Introduction1 The effects of direct democratic institutions have been investigated by a variety of authors, and those studies that test the effects on civil rights are of particular interest for us. Contrary to Cronin (1989), who did not find any discriminatory effects on minorities that resulted from direct democratic decision-making, Gamble (1997) has shown that without the filtering effects of representative democracy, direct democracy promotes majority tyranny. On the basis of 74 civil rights initiatives in state and local ballots in the U.S. between 1959 and 1993, covering housing and public accommodation of racial minorities, school segregation, gay rights, English language laws and AIDS policies, she comes to the conclusion that anti-civil rights initiatives have an extraordinarily successful record. Donovan and Bowler (1998) extend her work to show that majority tyranny is not simply a function of direct democracy but also of the scale of the polity over which democracy is practiced. Accordingly, they show that pro-minority outcomes are more likely in larger states or municipalities. On the other hand, Tolbert and Hero (1998) noted that the size of ethnic minorities and the degree of ethnic heterogeneity in a state also influence the outcomes. Others have discussed the analytical problems in Gamble’s (1997) findings and questioned their generalizability (Frey and Goette 1998; Gerber and Hug 2002). Without questioning her methodological approach, Frey and Goette (1998) demonstrate that 1 I wish to thank Christian Bolliger, Hanspeter Kriesi and Jörg Stolz for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this chapter. 103 Gamble’s results cannot be replicated for the Swiss case, arguing instead that direct democracy protects civil rights. As for referenda about foreigners that were held at the national level between 1970 and 1996, only three of twelve led to results unfavourable to them (but see Kriesi 1998, 352-353; Papadopoulos 1995, 441-443). While it might hold true for the national level that direct democracy has no discriminatory effects, we have clearly seen anti-foreigner effects at the local level in the context of naturalization efforts (Helbling and Kriesi 2004; Helbling 2007; Helbling 2008a; 2008b). Another shortcoming of Frey and Goette’s conclusion (and of Gamble’s analyses as well) is that they neglect the indirect effects of such referenda. Ballot results only measure the direct effects of direct democracy. As Matsuska (2000, 639) writes, however, approval or a change in policies can be caused by the mere threat of an initiative, or can come about through narrowly rejected initiatives that convey information to elected representatives about citizen preferences. Although our data clearly reveal that decisions by secret ballot have high impact, I consider the formal procedure as an opportunity structure and not as a factor that automatically leads to very high rejection rates. Generally, it can be argued that decisions by secret ballot enable more restrictive and even discriminatory decisions to be made. However, it depends on the attitudes of the local population whether restrictive or discriminatory decisions are taken. To have an effect, an opportunity not only has to be provided but also has to be grasped by xenophobic actors. A similar argument has already been put forward by Gerber and Hug (2002) who have shown that the effects of direct legislation are largely due to voters’ ideology. In their study of American states, they have shown that in liberal states direct legislation works in favor of minorities, while it discriminates against them in conservative states. Three arguments are discussed in this chapter. I first address the question how direct democratic institutions provide a particular opportunity for right-wing populists to mobilize the people in their favour. With respect to individual citizens’ attitudes and behaviour, I then discuss whether those who make use of direct democratic institutions, and in particular those who attend municipal assemblies, have a disproportionably restrictive understanding of citizenship and are thus not representative of the entire population. Finally, I argue that anonymous decisions favour discriminatory decisions, acting as social control, and that external checks are absent that could inhibit selfish behaviour. There is no space here to fully discuss these hypotheses, nor do I have the data to test them in detail. The data I draw on here were collected as part of a project on naturalization politics in Swiss municipalities that investigated other questions than the one I treat here (Helbling 2004; 2007; Helbling and Kriesi 2004). To illustrate my argument, I hence draw on illustrative material. Naturalization in Swiss Municipalities: Disputes over direct democratic procedures Foreign residents of Switzerland are naturalized in three steps: at the local, cantonal and national levels. Accordingly, each Swiss is a citizen of a municipality, a canton and of the nation-state. While it is certainly unique to be a citizen at three different 104 levels, it is quite common in other countries to have naturalization policies be decentralized, at least to a certain extent. In both federal and centralized nation-states, subnational units are involved in citizenship politics as they execute national laws and regulations. In Switzerland, however, regulations at the national level are rare, so municipalities are more or less free to decide over the criteria and procedures for granting foreign residents Swiss citizenship. As a consequence, the criteria applied and the ratio of rejected candidates diverge a great deal from one municipality to the next. By means of a survey in 200 municipalities, and 14 detailed case studies, we sought to find out why some municipalities pursue more restrictive naturalization policies than others do (Helbling 2004; 2007; Helbling and Kriesi 2004). Table 1 summarizes our main results, based on multivariate analyses and qualitative case studies. Socio-economic and socio-structural factors appear to have no impact: The employment rate, the ratio of foreigners living in a municipality and the ratio of applicants from Muslim countries – nowadays the most controversial group of immigrants seeking naturalization – have no direct influence on the naturalization policy. Instead, political and cultural elements help us predict the outcome of naturalization policies. In municipalities where citizens have a restrictive understanding of citizenship, more applications are rejected. In accounting for dominant actors and their attitudes, municipalities in which the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – a major populist right-wing party – is an influential force refuse more persons Swiss citizenship than do communities without such dominant influence of this party. Where Social Democrats are influential, by contrast, there is no impact at all on the rejection rate. Table 1: Impact on naturalization policy (rejection rates) The formal decision-making procedure also has a decisive impact on the number of rejected applicants. Final decisions are made in some municipalities by the entire population, either by ballot vote or during a municipal assembly. In other municipalities, it is the local parliament or the executive body which decides who can become a Swiss citizen. Table 2 divides the formal decision-making procedures into three groups: Independent variables Impact Understanding of citizenship High impact Influential Swiss People’s Party High impact Influential Social Democrats No impact Formal decision-making procedure High impact Unemployment rate No impact Ratio of foreign residents No impact Ratio of candidates from Muslim countries No impact 105 First, I differentiate whether or not decisions are taken in the open decision-making arena (i.e. whether they involve public struggles between political actors). The second group is then sub-divided into the two sub-groups that are differentiated by whether or not decisions are taken anonymously by the population by secret ballot. It is clear from Table 2 that the rejection rate increases immensely when decisions are taken anonymously in the open decision-making arena – either by ballot box vote or by secret ballot during municipal assemblies (group 3). It is for this reason that direct democratic decision-making procedures constitute the most controversial element in Swiss citizenship politics. Decisions taken by the local parliaments or by open ballot during municipal assemblies do not lead to more rejections (group 2), and when the decision-making procedures involve only the administrative and executive bodies, hardly any applications are rejected (group 1). Table 2: Impact of different formal decision-making procedures Strangely enough, and unlike all other European countries, discussions about naturalization do not turn so much on the question of which criteria have to be fulfilled. Instead, they are about which decision-making procedure is appropriate and whether or not the population rather than an administrative body should decide on applications. After discriminatory decisions were made in the last few years, the system of naturalization in Switzerland came under question, especially when candidates from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey were refused Swiss citizenship in municipalities where the population decided on their application by secret ballot. Opponents of this system criticize the arbitrariness of the municipal decision-making processes because they expose the candidates to the attitudes of the local population and politicians. They demand that procedures be standardized and decisions be made exclusively by the local administration or by the executive body and no longer by the population. In July 2003, the Swiss Federal Court rendered a verdict according to which popular votes by ballot on naturalization requests violate the Swiss Constitution. In May 2004, it further declared that decisions during municipal assemblies have to be made by Decisionmaking arena Open or secret ballot Groups Formal decisionmaking procedure Impact Closed - 1 Executive body/naturalization commission No impact Open Open 2 Local parliament No impact Municipal assembly: open ballot No impact Secret 3 Popular vote High impact Municipal assembly: secret ballot High impact 106 open ballot. Since the Swiss Federal Court regards naturalization as a purely administrative procedure, it has declared that justification for the decisions, and the possibility for appealing negative decisions, must be made openly available. These two rights, according to the Swiss Federal Court, are not guaranteed by the system of votes by ballot. Since these verdicts were handed down by the Federal Court, municipalities where the population had decided naturalization status by secret ballot have abolished or suspended this procedure. It is, however, unclear whether popular votes remain prohibited or whether they will be reintroduced in the near future. Open and closed decision-making arenas So why do direct democratic decisions lead to more rejections? I think the causal mechanisms are situated at two levels. High rejection rates can be observed when right-wing populists have the opportunity to mobilize the people (in an open decisionmaking arena) and when the people have the opportunity to take decisions in complete anonymity (by secret ballot). Guiraudon (1998, 287-297) argues that it is the scope and locus of political debate that is relevant for policy outcomes. It makes a difference whether immigration and citizenship policies are the object of intense political mobilization and public debates or whether the status of foreigners is discussed mainly within the bureaucracy. Whether these issues are debated in open and closed political arenas changes the actors and processes involved. In the public arena political parties get the opportunity to attract public attention to these issues. In the case of immigration and citizenship, public debates are very much influenced by actors pursuing restrictive immigration and citizenship policies. Marginal actors, such as extreme-right parties, who otherwise have no channels or access to restricted decision-making arenas get an opportunity to present their positions. During economic ›hard times‹, political parties can instrumentalize these issues and easily relate them to other issues such as unemployment, the social security system, or criminality. In the second half of the 20th century, and at the national level, minor right-wing parties that received little support in national elections used referenda and initiatives to mobilize Swiss citizens against immigrants or against candidates for naturalization (Skenderovic 2007, 171-174; Mahnig and Piguet 2003, 76-80; Mahnig 1998, 177- 179). In the 1970s and 1980s, parties such as the Swiss Republican Movement or National Action launched several referenda and initiatives ›against over-foreignization‹ and ›to limit naturalization‹. Although never successful, at their peak, they were able to mobilize up to 49 percent of the voters behind them. Though most initiatives and referenda by right-wing populists have been rejected, they substantially affected both official policy and popular attitudes. Because such successes were quite surprising for such small parties, they forced the government to implement a more restrictive immigration and citizenship policy. Direct democracy also has indirect effects. This is true of the initiatives and referenda launched by the SVP starting in the 1990s; the SVP has begun to replace other minor right-wing populist parties as the major voice opposing official policies on 107 immigration and naturalization. After the verdicts of the Swiss Federal Court were handed down, a popular referendum was launched by the cantonal section of the Swiss People’s Party in Schwyz. It was accepted in 2005, and according to it, a system of ballot box voting on naturalization can be reintroduced. The national Swiss People’s Party has recently launched a popular initiative at the national level demanding that each municipality should be able to decide itself how it wishes to naturalize foreigners. At the local level, right-wing populist parties pursue a similar strategy. The bestknown case comes from the town of Emmen, at the outskirts of Lucerne. The municipal parliament had made the decisions about naturalization until 1999, when the majority of the population voted in favor of a referendum launched by the Swiss Democrats – a minor right-wing party – which required that henceforth decisions should be made by secret ballot. This change of procedure generated much media attention and public debate in Switzerland. It also evoked astonishment outside of Switzerland, since the population regularly voted in a discriminatory manner after this change, refusing many of the candidates for naturalization who came from Muslim countries. The indirect effects of direct democratic institutions can also be observed at the local level. In municipalities in which the local population is involved in the decision-making process, we were told several times that the naturalization commission typically will only propose candidates who stand a good chance of being accepted. In municipalities where many applications have been rejected, the pre-selection’ of possible candidates has been tightened. Moreover, a restrictive naturalization policy may well have an impact on the demand side, insofar as it could deter potential candidates from even applying for Swiss citizenship (Bolliger 2004, 48). Put in a nutshell, when immigration and citizenship issues are handled exclusively, or mainly, within the bureaucracy or by executive bodies, the policy outcomes are more in favour of foreigners. Actors whose interest it is to restrict naturalization cannot mould the outcome to nearly the same extent. Does this imply that bureaucrats and members of the executive bodies are less xenophobic? Not necessarily. A government can be composed of representatives of rightwing populist parties and bureaucrats can interpret regulations in a restrictive way. Yet, their scope for independent action is rather small, as they must apply existing laws and regulations. Their actions are institutionally constrained, and this reduces the possibility of making arbitrary decisions. Moreover, administrative decisions have to be justified on the basis of existing laws or regulations that in most liberal democracies tend to favour immigrants; they also must uphold the principle of equality of treatment. Finally, since bureaucratic decisions have to be justified, the administration can be sued, and this too favours foreigners. The aforementioned decisions by the Swiss Federal Court are a good example in this context. Guiraudon (1998, 297-301) observed that higher courts in Europe guarantee civil liberties and non-discrimination, and in most cases this leads them to protect foreigners’ rights. In addition, giving foreigners a ›second chance‹ on appeal is of even greater relevance when debates must be fought in the open arena. Political reforms that seek to implement more restrictive 108 laws are often limited by court decisions. While democracy might be vulnerable to populist pressure, judges are protected from such pressure and obliged to follow and apply the universalistic principles of modern law (Joppke 1999, 18). Representative participants? Aside from providing a unique opportunity for right-wing populists to make politics, direct-democratic institutions also allow ordinary citizens to take discriminatory and restrictive decisions. To what extent open decision-making procedures allows people defending a restrictive naturalization policy to influence the outcomes can be illustrated by another of our case studies. In this municipality decisions are often, but not always, taken by secret ballot during municipal assemblies. In recent years, individual citizens had requested that decisions be made by secret ballot, and each time those requests were accepted, all the applications of citizens from Muslim countries that were up for decision were rejected. In assemblies where the population voted by open ballot, by contrast, almost no candidates were refused. According to a representative of the administration of this municipality, the persons who demanded a vote by secret ballot were known as quite xenophobic – and normally did not attend the local assemblies. Fiorina (1999, 414-17) would probably call this the dark side of direct democracy, inasmuch as the exceptional appearance of such ›extreme voices‹ provide an opportunity for a majority of the population to reject applicants from Muslim countries. He has wondered whether the political realm of civic engagement – and participation at municipal assemblies can certainly be considered as such – may not necessarily be a good thing, arguing that people who participate in politics, and especially in grassroot democracy, often are unrepresentative of the general population – and are hence ›extreme voices‹. Nowadays, he argues, the principle of participatory democracy is undermined as an increasing proportion of citizens are no longer willing to be politically active and or to participate in town hall meetings; it is simply too costly for them. Thus, the field is left to a minority of citizens who hold extreme positions. Is this also true for local assemblies in Swiss municipalities? On average, around 18 percent of all citizens participate in Swiss municipal assemblies, and of them, 60 percent are regular attendees (Ladner 1991, 75-78). This is much higher than the 10 percent average turnout of Fiorina’s hometown (1999, 415), but far below the average turnout in national votes (40 percent) or local elections (63 percent) in Switzerland (Ladner 1991, 74-75). Moreover, there are large differences in turnout: in small villages with less than 500 inhabitants it is 23-32 percent, while it is only 4 percent in cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants. Bützer (2003, 112-115) has compared the attendance at communal assemblies in 21 cities and found that, on average, only slightly more than 3 percent of the citizens participated (with the lowest turnouts in some cities on average only 0.3 percent). What about the composition of those who attend such assemblies? Unfortunately, no one has thus far investigated the individual characteristics of attendees in detail. Ladner (1991, 79-82) did address this question but only with aggregate data. While he did 109 not find any effects for education and income, he found that participation is higher in municipalities with a high ratio of farmers and persons exercising traditional jobs (craftsmen, salesman, etc.), or in other words, populations with rather conservative attitudes. Whether those people really attend assemblies is of course difficult to know, absent information at the individual level. Ladner and Bühlmann (2007) have collected individual data to investigate political participation at the local level, but they did not analyze participation at municipal assemblies. My own preliminary analyses of the dataset indicates that people who classify themselves on the political right or sympathize with the SVP have a significantly higher probability of attending a municipal assembly than do adherents of left-wing parties. On the basis of these findings it might be assumed that members and supporters of the SVP and other minor rightwing populist parties are more engaged in citizenship politics and participate more eagerly at local municipal assemblies, especially when naturalization is on the agenda. Accountability and social control One crucial aspect of debates on immigration and citizenship issues concerns accountability. In the context of issues that are emotionally and morally charged, the need to justify one’s own position is decisive for the outcome of policy processes. If one wants to participate in a public debate and even influence it, it is of great advantage (but not a necessity) to have arguments at hand to support one’s position, and that these arguments be reasoned. I hypothesize that in the context of emotionally and morally charged debates, some people have either no justifications, or they have arguments that contradict principles of liberal democracy. Such people encounter difficulties when they vote openly against applicants, in front of others, as they either have no means to react to possible counter-positions, or have arguments that contradict prevailing group norms. Many interviewees told us that they were against the verdicts of the Swiss Federal Court that required justification for rejecting applicants. Sometimes, there are simply no clear reasons, or arguments from interviewees that they just did not like a candidate, or had an uneasy feeling when they saw the person. Nevertheless, such feelings are regarded as legitimate reasons to not naturalize someone even though there is recognition that the situation does not allow them justify their decisions. For that reason, they prefer to pass judgment by secret ballot in order not to be embarrassed when they are asked for justification for their position. It can be assumed that in the context of such votes, people have no clear arguments for why they vote ›no‹. One reason is that they do not know the candidates and have little information to go on, other than what is provided in the booklets sent by the local authorities to each household in the run-up to the votes. How can you judge whether a candidate fulfils the relevant criteria if you have only his or her picture, and know no more than what his or her profession, hobbies, former nationality, and religion are? Stouffer (1955) argued that tolerant decisions are only possible when individuals devote significant cognitive resources to the broader implications of their choices. What he calls ›sober second thoughts‹ are necessary to avoid discriminatory decisions. Yet, the extent to 110 which personal contact can change attitudes is best illustrated by the mayor of one town, a member of the local SVP. He declared on national television that he became much more tolerant toward candidates when he entered local politics and got to know them personally. Personal contact with foreigners in the neighborhood or at the workplace, it has been argued, reduces negative attitudes towards them (Wagner and van Dick 2002, 99-101). Knowing people from other ethnic groups helps relativize one’s own cultural and ethnocentric standards (Pettigrew 1997; Thomas 1996). On the other hand, it might be that those who decide have clear arguments why they are against an individual applicant for citizenship but they nonetheless prefer not to share them. Some interviewees confided that they preferred decisions by secret ballot because they then did not have to reveal their personal attitudes. They argued that there were legitimate reasons to fear reprisals from foreign citizens if everybody could see how they voted during municipal assemblies. Members of naturalization commissions told us that they had discussed several times whether commission members were exposing themselves to any danger when they rejected applications. Decisions by secret ballot can also be an issue in local parliaments. In one of our case studies, the local SVP had successfully instituted a requirement that decisions of the parliament were no longer to be taken by open ballot. They argued that some deputies preferred not to expose their views to colleagues and the media. In other words, some people are afraid of the costs that a public declaration against one or several candidates for naturalization might cause. Although reprisals by candidates who are rejected are hardly imaginable, fear of reprisal might nonetheless be real. In the vast majority of cases, however, it can be assumed that people fear the reactions of their fellow citizens more. The theory of reasoned action provides some arguments for understanding this response (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980). According to this, the intention to act is determined on the one hand by one’s attitude toward the behavior and on the other hand by subjective norms concerned with the likelihood that important reference individuals or groups would approve or disapprove of the behavior. In the case of decision-making by open and secret ballot at municipal assemblies, it seems that in this municipality, social control meant avoiding discriminatory decisions when not taken anonymously. Of course, social control only has an impact if the person is motivated to comply with the referents in question. Moreover, intentions are not only controlled but they can also be reinforced if other people share the same attitudes. In municipalities with traditionally rather restrictive naturalization policies, it is certainly much easier to publicly maintain discriminatory arguments against certain groups of foreigners. It might, however, be assumed that the basic principles of liberal democracy, such as equality of treatment, constitute important arguments in most local debates on naturalization. Such normative and moral norms are not only difficult to counteract, they also constitute themselves as social control mechanisms, or in other words, as external checks that avoid blind, selfish and short-sighted behaviour and enhance reasonable and nonregretted outcomes (Offe and Preuss 1991). According to Dahl (1956) such external checks are necessary to ensure that a group will not tyrannize a minority; internal 111 checks, such as norms and values, might not always inhibit blindness, selfishness and short-sightedness. The Swiss experience illustrates the diversity of direct democracy, in its positive and negative aspects. Direct or open voting, contrary to expectation, can lead to exclusionary citizenship policies, inasmuch as such institutional settings facilitate a mobilization of the voting public by right-wing populists. It can sever social control mechanisms, as it allows people to have an opportunity to take discriminatory decisions; those people then remain complete anonymous and suffer no adverse consequences for their behaviour. References Ajzen, I. and Fishbein, M. 1980 Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior, Englewood-Cliffs, HJ: Prentice-Hall. Auer, A. and von Arx, N. 2000 ›Direkte Demokratie ohne Grenzen? 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Der Sammelband „Right-wing extremism“ hat ein doppeltes Ziel. Zum einen soll er das Nationale Forschungsprogramm 40plus und seine Projekte präsentieren (die alle mit Beiträgen präsent sind), zum anderen sollen diese nationalen Beiträge in eine internationale Perspektive gestellt werden, sodass in der Übersicht und Umschau eine Verortung der schweizerischen Forschung (und damit auch des NFP40plus selbst) und ihrer Resultate möglich wird. Eingeladen wurden dazu führende europäische Forscher auf dem Gebiet des Rechtsextremismus.