Swiss parliament seen tilting right over migrant fears
The Swiss voted Sunday for a new parliament, with initial projections showing the populist right strengthening its already dominant position amid concerns over migration and asylum rules.
Polling stations closed at noon (1000 GMT) after only a few hours, as most Swiss vote in advance by post or online.
Early projections from some of Switzerland's 26 cantons hinted that the country's largest party, the populist right-wing anti-immigration Swiss People's Party (SVP), had made gains and could possibly tip the scale in parliament towards a slight centre-right majority.
The expected shift comes as surging numbers of migrants and refugees moving through Europe have heightened the focus on the issue in Switzerland, even though the wealthy Alpine nation has yet to be significantly affected by the crisis.
About a quarter of Switzerland's eight million inhabitants are foreign nationals, and immigration and asylum policies tend to figure among voters' top concerns.
But the latest survey from the gfs.bern polling institute showed that 48 percent of those questioned thought migration was the most important issue facing the country.
- 'A lot at stake' -
"I think there is a lot at stake, not only when it comes to the reception of refugees, but also the entire problem of the large numbers on the move," Colette Morel, a 69-year-old retired teacher, told AFP as she cast her ballot in the central canton of Fribourg.
"We need people (in parliament) who are prepared to discus the matter," she said, but declined to say who she had voted for.
SVP vice president and its most outspoken member, Christoph Blocher, insisted earlier this month the party was the only one that could solve Switzerland's "asylum problem", and "eliminate the chaos".
SVP, which has previously sparked outcry with campaign posters such as one showing one of three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag, has in its national push this year been less provocative, resorting mainly to posters featuring pictures of candidates with the slogan "Stay free".
But some regional divisions of the party have gone much further, with the Vaud youth unit putting out a poster featuring a caricature of a jihadist, wearing an EU armband, preparing to decapitate a bound and gagged blond woman wearing a Swiss flag tank top, flanked by the caption: "Keep your head on your shoulders".
That poster also plays to the second top concern among the Swiss, according to the latest gfs.bern poll.
Nine percent of those questioned in the survey said they were most concerned about Switzerland's relationship with the European Union, which was badly hit by a narrow Swiss popular vote in February 2014, championed by the SVP, in favour of restricting immigration from the bloc.
The centre-right Liberals, in third place, were also seen gaining ground, according to early projections, helping to move the pendulum in parliament towards the right.
The party is however unlikely to help SVP push through its more radical positions, since it takes a very different stance on a range of issues, including on the question of immigration.
"We have no migrant problem in Switzerland today," said Fathi Derder, a parliamentarian with the Liberal Party, insisting instead that the country "is facing a dire lack of qualified labour" and "should be rolling out the red carpet for the people that the Swiss economy so desperately needs".
- Low voter turnout -
The Socialists, Switzerland's second largest party, are also expected to inch up slightly in the polls, while the Christian Democrats, the Greens and other smaller parties are likely to take a hit.
Pierre Thevoz, a 38-year-old nurse, told AFP he hoped the left would gain ground, which could lead to "more consciousness around social and environmental problems," instead of the right's push to "reject foreigners and prop up multinational corporations".
In all, 246 seats are up for grabs -- 200 in the lower chamber and the remainder in the upper chamber.
Power-sharing and consensus rule are the norm in Switzerland and elections rarely lead to major shifts in parliament or the makeup of the government, which does not directly reflect the power balance in the house.
And Switzerland's famous system of direct democracy allows citizens to voice their opinions on a large range of issues every few months, downplaying the importance of the parliamentary vote.
That is usually reflected in voter turnout, which has not exceeded 50 percent in legislative elections since 1975.
"I guess there is a certain level of disinterest, since most people are doing well here," Morel said.
© 2015 AFP