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Luxembourg to vote on giving foreigners a say in state

[LUXEMBOURG] Luxemburgers vote on Sunday on extending voting rights to foreigners - a move that would not only be unprecedented in Europe but could expand the electorate of the tiny but cosmopolitan grand duchy by as much as 50 per cent.

The referendum is backed by liberal Prime Minister Xavier Bettel as part of a modernising agenda that includes lowering the voting age to 16 from 18 and introducing 10-year term limits for ministers, following the 19-year rule of his conservative predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, now the EU's chief executive.

Recent polls, however, suggest the more vocal No camp has an edge, backed by Juncker's party, now in opposition, which says long-time foreign residents should instead seek citizenship.

Pushing a Yes, dozens of business leaders signed a newspaper advert this week describing votes for foreigners as "a unique opportunity for Luxembourg and no danger to Luxemburgers".

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In the event of a Yes, parliament would draft constitutional changes which would have to be ratified by a second plebiscite.

Nearly half Luxembourg's 540,000 inhabitants are foreign, many Italian and Portuguese, and 150,000 more commute in daily from Germany, France and Belgium, many to work in a financial sector that has supplanted historic coal and steel industries.

The referendum will ask whether foreigners who have lived in Luxembourg for 10 years and have exercised their existing right to vote in municipal elections should also have the franchise for national ballots. Some 35,000 would already qualify and that could rise to over 100,000 if all those resident for a decade or more started to register and cast votes in local elections.

European Union states offer other EU nationals a vote in local polls and some give a say in national elections to certain nationalities - Britain, for example, enfranchises citizens of former colonies. But Luxembourg would set an EU first in handing voting rights to all foreigners equally, and in such numbers.

It is not clear any party would benefit from an expanded franchise. It could have unforeseen impacts on a political system dominated since World War Two by Juncker's CSV but in which Bettel now rules in coalition with greens and socialists.

The 42-year-old premier, whose marriage last month to another man contrasted with lingering images of Luxembourg as provincial and conservative, has called for a Yes to all three questions on the referendum ballot paper, including votes for 16- and 17-year-olds and capping terms in government.

However, there is little sign in the EU's most prosperous country of a major change at hand and little campaigning is visible - though some have become passionate in the debate.

"Luxembourg's citizens have made many sacrifices to keep their national sovereignty. What would our parents and grandparents say if we gave this up voluntarily?" the No campaign website declares, referring to struggles for survival sandwiched between great-power rivals France and Germany.

Such emotions may be key and thwart government plans, said political scientist Philippe Poirier at Luxembourg University.

"The No campaign has been much more vocal and much more visible on social networks," he said. "That's very important in a country which doesn't have a long tradition of referendums."