Immigration Tops Swiss Election Agenda on EU Migrant Crisis

  • 245 seats in two houses up for grabs in Sunday's election
  • No big power shift predicted, though right may gain slightly

Refugees and migrants arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on Oct. 11.

Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Swiss voters will go to the polls on Sunday in a parliamentary election dominated by immigration and asylum concerns that could eventually lead to a shakeup of the multi-party government.

In the wake of a controversial 2014 referendum to clamp down on newcomers from the neighboring European Union and with the continent now facing its biggest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, voters are likely to reward parties to the “right,” according to a poll for Swiss broadcaster SRG. Migration concerns are set to even dwarf worries about the economy, which has narrowly skirted a recession brought on by the strong currency.

“What is top of the list of concerns, what is preoccupying people, are immigration, asylum, the refugee crisis that we have around Europe,” said Georg Lutz, professor of political science at the University of Lausanne. “People feel that acutely.”

All but one of 246 seats are up for grabs in the parliament, which is similar to the U.S. Congress, with one house representing the population and the other the 26 cantons. The election and possible ensuing rotation within the government aren’t likely to prove a game-changer, given the country’s penchant for predictability, according to Lutz.

New Government

With more than 25 parties standing and one of the world’s more complicated election systems, no party wins in the American or British sense. Instead, the new Swiss parliament will elect a seven-person government in December, with seats divvied up loosely on the basis of proportionality and strategic agreements among parties.

The anti-immigration, fiscally conservative Swiss People’s Party, or SVP, is likely to remain the biggest party in parliament, with the pro-business Free Democrats, or FDP, improving somewhat upon their result in the 2011 federal vote, polls show. That shift could threaten the position of Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf of the Bourgeois Democratic Party, or BDP, a key player in the bailout of UBS Group AG. The 59-year-old made international headlines in 2010 for her decision not to extradite Oscar-winning film-maker Roman Polanski to the U.S.

The increased popularity of conservative parties comes as Switzerland experiences a slowdown in economic momentum because of the strong franc and after an influx of EU immigrants and asylum seekers from countries such as Eritrea over the past decade. Roughly a quarter of the country’s population of 8 million are not citizens.

The government faces the conundrum of how to enact the results of the 2014 initiative imposing quotas on new arrivals from EU countries without entirely souring relations with the bloc, which could hurt the Swiss economy. Immigration and refugees are by far the primary concern among voters, the poll by gfs.bern for broadcaster SRG found.

Switzerland’s population expanded by 1.2 percent last year, primarily due to immigration, official data show, with Germans and Italians the largest groups of newcomers.

Government Influence

“Elections in Switzerland don’t mean a change of government,” said Joachim Blatter, professor of political science at the University of Lucerne. “Right of center parties will likely gain in parliament. But it remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to translate that into more influence in the government -- and a lot will depend on what sort of candidate they propose.”

As the largest party, the SVP may lay claim to a second government seat and, as a member of the small BDP, Widmer-Schlumpf’s could be their first target. Still, with the finance ministry overseeing complex dossiers including the dispute with other countries over untaxed assets, lawmakers may wish for continuity and thwart attempts to unseat her.

That could leave the SVP looking at one of the FDP’s two seats instead. The Social Democrats may back this scenario because it would appease the SVP in its complaint of being underrepresented, while the government as a whole would be prevented from having a more conservative bent.

“I can’t venture a forecast on the government’s composition,” said Luca Strebel, member of the CVP in the canton of Solothurn. “It’ll be decided by the narrowest of margins.”

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