ZURICH (Reuters) - A right-wing Swiss party that wants to limit the number of immigrants is hoping to win a historic 30 percent share of the votes in an election on Sunday, which could bolster its case for greater representation in the government.
Sunday’s election is for 200 seats in the lower house of parliament and 45 of the 46 seats in the upper house. The outcome influences the parties’ bargaining power when the seven-seat, multi-party cabinet is selected by parliament on December 14.
The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) on track to scoop 29.3 percent, slightly more than its record performance in 2007, after tapping into growing fears that immigration could hurt the Alpine country’s high standard of living.
It has plastered towns and cities with posters showing black feet storming over the Swiss flag with the slogan: “Now is enough! Stop mass immigration.”
Despite Switzerland’s comparatively 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 threaten jobs and lead to wage pressure.
Foreigners, which make up some 22 percent of the 7.9 million population, have been blamed for rising rents, crowded public transport and even higher electricity bills.
The SVP’s nearest rivals, the Social Democrats (SP), are forecast to increase their share of the vote to 19.9 percent.
Preliminary results showed a shift towards new smaller parties like the Green Liberal Party (GLP) and the Conservative Democrats (BDP) from the traditional centrist parties.
“The Green Liberal Party will get stronger. The two new small parties are attractive for voters,” Claude Longchamp from polling institute GFS Bern told Swiss television.
Environmental parties have made gains due to waning public confidence in nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster.
“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.
Polling stations closed at midday on Sunday and national results are expected at 1900 local time (1700 GMT).
But 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.
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. Such a move could go against 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.
If the SVP does well it will push its case for two seats in cabinet, although there is no guarantee it will get them because parliamentarians can tactically agree to support different candidates, which must balance French and German speakers.
Traditionally, the three largest political parties have held two seats each, while the fourth largest has just one seat.
Even before the votes were counted, centrist parties were plotting to join forces to guarantee Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf of the BDP her place in the cabinet and deny the SVP a second seat.
The SVP’s leader Toni Brunner told a Swiss newspaper the party could seek to overthrow the power-sharing system of Swiss politics by forming a coalition government with another party if it is denied a second seat.
Additional reporting by Signe Grejsen in Geneva; Editing by Elizabeth Piper