Swiss vote on tougher asylum law
The Swiss voted Sunday on whether to throw out a government move to tighten Switzerland's asylum law amid an influx of refugees to the wealthy Alpine nation.
Voting stations opened at different times in different regions of Switzerland, where four Sundays have been set aside this year for popular votes on national, regional and local issues as part of the country's famous direct democratic system.
Most people however vote in advance, by post or as part of e-voting trials in some cantons, and some polling stations opened on Saturday as well in a bid to push up participation in a country where less than half of the country's 5.2 million voters usually cast their ballots.
The polling stations are set to close by noon (1000 GMT), and the initial results were expected by early afternoon.
The tightening of Switzerland's asylum law is the most anticipated vote Sunday.
Bern made controversial changes to the asylum law last year as applications soared to their highest level in over a decade, including removing military desertion from a list of valid grounds for seeking asylum in Switzerland.
Critics of the changes gathered the 60,000 signatures needed to put the issue to a popular vote, but opinion polls suggest that their bid is likely to fail. The most recent poll in late May showed 57 percent of Swiss in favour of the tougher asylum rules.
Military desertion had been the grounds for asylum most frequently cited by Eritreans, who accounted for most applications to Switzerland last year.
Eritrea imposes unlimited military service, with low wages, on all able-bodied men and women.
The revision, which took effect last September, also removed the possibility -- which had been unique in Europe -- to apply for asylum from Swiss embassies instead of travelling to Switzerland to do so, a change opponents have described as "inhumane".
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, who is in charge of the brief, has meanwhile insisted the changes were needed, stressing that they have significantly speeded up the application process.
"Leaving people and their families for so long wallowing in uncertainty is unacceptable," she said recently.
Switzerland currently counts some 48,000 people in the process of seeking asylum, including 28,631 who arrived in 2012.
The surge, attributed in part to the Arab Spring uprisings, marks the highest number since the height of the Balkans war in 1999, when nearly 48,000 people sought refuge in the country.
Also on Sunday, the Swiss will vote on whether the people should elect the country's government members directly instead of having parliament pick them, as it has done for the past 165 years.
That initiative appears set to fail, according to polls.
There are also several regional and local votes Sunday, including two in Zurich: an initiative to raise taxes on the "super rich" and a bid to impose tougher measures against hooliganism.
© 2013 AFP