Switzerland's anti-immigrant Swiss People's Party failed to live up to its pledge to raise its share of the vote in parliamentary elections yesterday, but the rightwing group was still the largest political force despite suffering losses to green and centre parties.
Support for the ultra-conservative People's Party's (SVP) dropped by just more than 2 points to 26.8 per cent, exit polls showed, dashing the party's hopes of securing a record 30 per cent, which could have bolstered its case for greater representation in government.
Led by the billionaire eurosceptic Chrstoph Blocher, the SVP became the focus of international media attention in 2007 when the party's virulently anti-immigrant election campaign was denounced by the United Nations as racist.
Foreigners make up around 25 per cent of the Swiss population and many do menial jobs. Business leaders have argued that the economy, which has less than 3 per cent unemployment, relies heavily on immigrant workers.
However, voters had complained the country was becoming overcrowded. SVP placards warning of mass immigration and claiming "Now it's enough" were put up across the country in the run-up to the election. They pictured black legs and feet apparently marching into Switzerland. Last year, the SVP mounted a campaign which has banned the building of new minarets at mosques in the country. In a referendum this year, the party also won backing for laws which allow the automatic expulsion of foreigners convicted of certain offences.
Its latest plan is to force another referendum on severely restricting immigration. Critics have warned if the public backs such measures, they could contravene agreements with the EU on the free movement of labour and put the country's trade links with Europe at risk.
However, Mr Blocher claimed repeatedly during campaigning the European Union had a secret plan which aims to force Switzerland to adopt EU law. One of the highlights of an otherwise dull election was the kidnapping of the SVP's mascot – a goat – by left wing activists.
Financial worries were one of voters' main concerns in the run up to the election. The rise of the Swiss Franc to near parity with the euro forced the Swiss National Bank to introduce a fixed exchange rate of 1.20 Swiss Francs to the single currency.
Economic experts warned the fixed rate is still too high and likely to adversely affect Swiss exports if the situation does not change. However, the current euro crisis has pushed the notion of Switzerland joining the EU off the political agenda. No Swiss party actively supports the idea at present. The main victor to emerge from the election for 200 seats in the lower house of the Swiss parliament was the Green Liberal Party, which increased its share by more than 4 per cent. "If exit polls result prove accurate then things look great for us," said Martin Bäumle, its president.