Swiss Vote on Criminal Foreigners as Outcome Too Close to Call

  • Polling stations close at noon, results due later on Sunday
  • Referendums are part of Swiss tradition of direct democracy

The Swiss are heading to the polls on Sunday to decide on a controversial initiative to deport foreigners convicted of crimes that could potentially worsen already strained relations with the European Union.

The vote, which the most recent poll by gfs.bern had indicated was too close to call, comes amid rising apprehension across Europe about an influx of refugees from the Middle East, with sexual assaults involving asylum seekers in Cologne only underscoring the unease. Roughly a quarter of Switzerland’s 8.2 million inhabitants aren’t citizens.

Voting will end by noon local time and results are expected later on Sunday. Many voters will already have cast their ballots by mail.

“It’s a landmark vote -- it has proved very polarizing,” said Joachim Blatter, a professor of political science at the University of Lucerne. “It’s important for the political future of Switzerland. The consensus-based democratic system is being lost.”

The so-called enforcement initiative, spearheaded by the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party, has proved divisive as it would require not only deportation of foreigners convicted of crimes such as murder, but also the expulsions of those convicted of lesser offenses -- such as insulting a police officer -- if they have a prior criminal record.

That would be in violation of a treaty between the EU and Switzerland, whose annulment would cost the Swiss economy an estimated 32 billion francs ($32 billion) a year. The two sides are already at odds over a Swiss referendum in 2014 to limit the number of newly arriving EU immigrants.

Plebiscites are a key feature of Switzerland’s political system and are typically held four times a year. Voters on Sunday also will decide on building a second automobile tunnel through the Gotthard, restricting speculation on foodstuff commodities and on the taxation of married couples.

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