Swiss Go to Polls in Parliament Vote as Immigration Tops Agenda

  • 245 seats in two houses up for grabs in national election
  • Polls don't forecast big power shift, right may gain slightly

A man walks with his bike past electoral posters of canditates of the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP-UDC) prior to Swiss elections, in Lausanne.

Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Swiss voters head to the polls on Sunday in a parliamentary election with immigration and asylum-seekers at the forefront of their concerns.

Following last year’s referendum to clamp down on newcomers from the neighboring European Union and with the continent now facing its biggest refugee crisis in decades, voters are likely to reward parties on the “right,” according to a poll for Swiss broadcaster SRG. Such concerns are even set to dwarf anxiety about the economy, which has managed to dodge a recession brought on by the strong currency.

All but one of 246 seats are up for grabs in the parliament, which is similar to the U.S. Congress, with one chamber representing the population and the other the 26 cantons. The election and any resulting potential shift within the government aren’t likely to prove a game-changer, according to political scientists.

“Elections in Switzerland don’t mean a change of government,” said Joachim Blatter, professor of political science at the University of Lucerne.

Polling stations close by midday, though many voters will have cast their ballots by post or electronically before Sunday. Results are traditionally due from 7 p.m. in Bern.

With more than 25 parties campaigning and a complex election system, no party wins in the U.S. or British sense. Instead, the new Swiss parliament will elect a seven-person government in December, with seats determined roughly on the basis of proportionality and strategic deals among parties.

The anti-immigration, fiscally conservative Swiss People’s Party, or SVP, probably will stay the biggest party in parliament, with the pro-business Free Democrats, or FDP, faring somewhat better than in the 2011 federal vote, polls show.

Conservative parties’ heightened appeal comes as the Swiss economy weakens due to of the strong franc and after high levels of EU immigration to the country of 8 million inhabitants in recent years. About a quarter of the population of 8 million are not citizens.

The government faces the challenge of enacting the results of the 2014 initiative imposing quotas on newcomers from EU countries without ruining relations with the bloc, Switzerland’s biggest trading partner. Immigration and refugees are by far the primary concern among voters, the poll by gfs.bern for broadcaster SRG found.

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