Swiss anti-immigration party loses support in election

Parliamentary elections in Switzerland show leftist trend; Social Democrats made largest gains, SVP remains biggest party.

Swiss election projections 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Pascal Lauener )
Swiss election projections 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Pascal Lauener )
ZURICH - The Swiss People's Party (SVP), which campaigned to stop an influx of immigrants, lost support in a parliamentary election on Sunday as voters, disillusioned with traditional politics, shifted their backing to smaller, fledgling parties.
The SVP lost some 2.1 percentage points from the last election in 2007 but was still on track to be the biggest party with 26.8 percent of the vote, according to a projection by Swiss television based on partial results.
RELATED:Israeli flags burned at 'Occupy Tehran' demonstrationJazzing it up
In second place, the center-left Social Democrats are seen winning 18.9 percent of the vote, 0.6 percentage points below their showing in the 2007 election, though they were set to increase by one their number of seats in parliament.
The centrist Free Democrats (FDP) and Christian Democrats (CDP) both lost ground, while the small Green Liberal Party (BLP) and the Conservative Democrats (BDP) -- which broke away from the SVP in 2008 -- were the main gainers.
The results suggest the appeal of the SVP's anti-immigration rhetoric is waning. The party plastered towns and cities with posters showing black feet storming over the Swiss flag with the slogan: "Now is enough! Stop mass immigration!"
Daniel Boschler, assistant professor in comparative politics at Zurich University, said the election campaign had focused less on migration than in previous years.
"Migration is still a really important concern and the reason that 27 percent of the population voted for them -- they're still the strongest party. But there is no discussion on the EU and migration at this time."
It was the first time in 20 years that the SVP had failed to increase its share of the vote.
The party had hoped to win the backing of some 30 percent of the voters, slightly more than its record performance in 2007, by exploiting fears that immigration is hurting the Alpine country's high standard of living.
Despite Switzerland's low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, the party has struck a chord with voters who fear a financial crisis in the euro zone could lead to a new flood of immigration, threatening jobs and leading to wage pressure.
The SVP has blamed foreigners, who make up some 22 percent of the 7.9 million population, for rising rents, crowded public transport and even rising electricity bills.
Last week the party said it had gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to call a referendum on curbing the number of immigrants by reintroducing quotas. This might contravene agreements Switzerland has with the European Union on the free movement of people.
The SVP has won referendums in recent years to ban the building of new minarets and to expel immigrants convicted of serious crimes, but its policies have angered some Swiss people.
The party's mascot, a goat named Zottel, was kidnapped and painted black, in protest against its anti-immigration stance.
Christoph Blocher, credited with transforming the SVP from a small, rural party to a conservative grouping with national appeal over the last 20 years, looked unlikely to win a seat in the upper house on Sunday, early results showed.
"We need more solidarity than ever before because people are living in a financial crisis, so I think (people) should vote for an open and ecological Switzerland," Henriette Stebner told Reuters TV as she cast her vote in Geneva.
Apart from migration, campaign issues included the strong Swiss franc and waning confidence in nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, which helped the Green Liberal Party (GLP) to increase its vote to 5.5 percent.
The BDP, founded to support popular Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf after she was expelled from the SVP, also ate into the traditional parties' share of the vote.
The success of her party -- which came from nowhere to win 5.4 percent of the vote -- will bolster her bid to stay in the seven-seat, multi-party cabinet which will be selected by parliament on Dec. 14.
If Widmer-Schlumpf can keep her seat, the SVP's losses will undermine its case for an extra seat in cabinet, in which the three largest parties have traditionally held two seats each, while the fourth largest has just one seat.
In the past other parties have banded together to try to sideline the SVP in the consensus-based cabinet.
But SVP leader Toni Brunner said his party would push for a second seat: "I don't know whether Switzerland can allow the strongest force in the country to be excluded," he told Swiss television.