Switzerland votes amid immigrant, EU debt fears

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Switzerland voted Sunday for a new parliament, with the already dominant far-right SVP hoping to benefit from fears over the eurozone debt crisis as well as its anti-immigration platform.

In all, 246 seats are up for election, including 200 for the lower chamber and the remaining for the upper chamber. Polls closed at noon after voting began in some parts of the country on Saturday.

Analysts do not expect the polls to lead to a major shift in the parliamentary balance, but they believe that a key issue will be whether the SVP manages to improve on its 2007 score of 28.8 percent.

Although it is the largest party in parliament, the SVP has been locked out of power by rivals fiercely opposed to its political platform.

"An important issue at stake is whether the SVP will manage to maintain its 2007 score or improve it," said Pascal Sciarini, a political analyst.

"It's a very important point because it would mark the first time that a party has surpassed the 30 percent mark in Switzerland, which has not been the case since 1919," he added.

With an unemployment rate of just 2.8 percent and healthy public finances and output figures, the alpine state is an island of prosperity in Europe.

While Swiss economic indicators look solid, the country's export-led industry has seen its earnings sharply reduced in recent quarters as the franc strengthened dramatically against the euro and US dollar.

The Swiss National Bank has since fixed a floor of 1.20 francs against the euro, but exporters are calling for more action.

As earnings come under pressure, some companies have instituted regimes such as longer working hours for less pay, or even cut jobs, all of which have contributed to the atmosphere of uncertainty.

With the uncertain climate, the SVP has sought to win votes through aggressive campaign claiming that the "mass immigration" of foreigners was taking away Swiss jobs, or that they were here to claim social benefits.

Unlike the 2007 elections, however, this year's polls have been without much controversy.

During the previous polls, the SVP sparked an outcry with its its posters of three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag led the UN anti-racism expert to call for the withdrawal of the posters.

This year, it has opted for an image of a crowd marching across the Swiss flag, with the slogan: "That's enough. Stop mass immigration."

Scattered results and estimations indicated that the SVP has defended its lower chamber seats in canton Aargau, and won for the first time a lower chamber seat in the small half canton of Nidwalden.

However, the SVP's best-known personality Christoph Blocher, a billionaire industrialist and former justice minister, appeared to be falling behind in his bid for a senate seat in canton Zurich.

Projections also show that the environmental parties may improve their performance, on the back of concerns over the future of nuclear energy surfaced following Japan's Fukushima accident.

In canton Aargau, the Green Liberals was set to gain a seat, while in canton Graubuenden, projections indicate that an alliance between the Socialist Party and the Greens as well as Green Liberals has polled 26.54 percent, ahead of the SVP with 24.68 percent.

© 2011 AFP

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