Anti-Immigrant SVP Soars in Swiss Vote on Foreigner Anxiety

  • 245 seats in two houses of parliament to be allotted
  • Migration, refugees were voters' primary concern, polls showed

Swiss People's Party SVP President Toni Brunner smiles at the house of Parliament.

Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The Swiss People’s Party won its best result ever in Sunday’s election, capitalizing on voters’ unease about an influx of foreigners just as Europe faces its biggest refugee crisis in decades.

The anti-immigrant, fiscally conservative SVP won 65 seats in Switzerland’s lower house, up from 54 in 2011, according to the Federal Statistic’s Office, which show the party got 29.4 percent of the vote. That’s ahead of the Social Democrats, who fell to 43 seats, and the pro-business Free Democrats, or FDP, which advance to 33 seats. A poll for Swiss broadcaster SRG forecast such a shift, with the SVP coming in first. The SVP’s previous best showing in the 200-member lower house was in 2007, when it won 62 seats on 28.9 percent of the vote.

“Those who voted FDP did so because of the strong franc and because of the difficult economic situation, and those who voted SVP did so because of concerns about immigration and asylum seekers,” said Thomas Schaeubli, a political risk analyst at Wellershoff & Partners Ltd. in Zurich.

Conservative parties’ heightened appeal comes in response to high immigration from the neighboring European Union in recent years and after the economy lost steam due to of the strength of the franc, raising the prospect of increased unemployment. About a quarter of the country’s 8 million inhabitants aren’t citizens.

Gains came at the expense of smaller competitors, with Christian Democrats, or CVP, probably coming in at 28 seats and green parties also declining. The Bourgeois Democratic Party of Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, previously a member of the SVP, lost two seat and now has seven in the lower house. Four years ago, environmentalist parties benefited in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan, analysts said.

“There has been a slide to the right,” Christophe Darbellay, president of the CVP, told SRF television. “We’d expected that but not to such an extent.”

With popular initiatives allowing voters to have a direct say on topics from taxation to immigration to executive pay, national elections have less weight than in other countries.

All but one of 246 seats were up for grabs in the two houses of parliament, which is similar to the U.S. Congress, with one chamber representing the population and the other the 26 cantons. Some upper house members will only be decided in coming weeks as runoff votes are needed.

With many parties campaigning and a complex election systems, no party wins Swiss elections in the American or British sense. Instead, the new Swiss parliament will elect a seven-person government on Dec. 9, with seats determined roughly on the basis of proportionality and strategic deals among parties. Widmer-Schlumpf’s seat may be under attack as the SVP is demanding a second in government.

Thomas Minder, who spearheaded the 2013 national referendum to limit executive pay, and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher, chief executive officer of EMS-Chemie Holding AG and daughter of former SVP Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, were among the winners in Sunday’s vote.

Among the government’s challenges for the coming year will be enacting the results of a 2014 initiative imposing quotas on newcomers from EU countries without ruining relations with the bloc, Switzerland’s top destination for exports.

“It’s clear, the whole migration wave, the migration of people toward Europe is of concern to people,” SVP President Toni Brunner told SRF. “The whole immigration question hasn’t been solved yet.”

EU Deal

The Swiss government has already proposed a bill to revise the immigration statute but now faces tough talks with EU officials who have said the free movement of persons, to which the Swiss agreed as part of a treaty package that covers a host of topics ranging from air traffic to agriculture, can’t be renegotiated. Switzerland’s unilaterally canceling the free-movement provision would nullify the entire set of agreements, which would likely be detrimental to the economy.

While the SVP’s gains “may have some impact on some topics, like energy and economy, where they can cooperate with the FDP, with questions about Europe, where everyone is against the SVP, it won’t mean so much,” said Michael Hermann, a political scientist who heads Zurich-based research institute Sotomo.

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