By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press
BERN, Switzerland – Swiss voters backed moderate forces in their general election in which nationalists failed in their effort to break through the 30 percent barrier with a campaign heavy on anti-immigrant sentiment.
The nationalist Swiss People's Party, or SVP, was projected to take 25.9 percent of the vote for the lower house, a drop of 3 percent from four years ago, according to public television station SF's latest projections early Monday morning.
On the left, the Greens also sustained a surprising setback, taking 7.9 percent of the vote, a drop of 1.7 percent from four years ago. The SVP and Greens were each projected to lose seven seats in Switzerland's lower chamber, the 200-seat National Council.
"We didn't achieve our election goal," People's Party president Toni Brunner conceded as results from Sunday's voting trickled in.
His party diminishment reverses 20 years of steady growth in parliamentary elections that are held every four years. It drew 11 percent of the vote in 1987, but captured as much as 28.9 percent in 2007.
During that time, support had eroded for two major center-right parties, the Free Democratic Party and Christian Democratic People's Party, from a combined 42.5 percent in 1987 down to 30.3 percent in 2007.
Now, two of the SVP's small centrist competitors are rebounding — at its expense.
The SVP's rise was stalled by the Conservative Democratic Party whose members split from the SVP in 2007, and the centrist Green Liberal Party, which picks up 9 seats in the National Council successfully riding a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment following the disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant in March.
Both those centrist parties are expected to receive more than 5 percent of the vote for the National Council. Voters are also deciding on 45 of 46 seats for the upper house, or Council of States.
Barely one of every two eligible Swiss voters typically exercise their privilege. Estimated turnout for Sunday's general election remained virtually unchanged at 48.9 percent, slightly up from 48.2 percent in 2007.
The panoply of political parties in Switzerland makes for intense haggling after every election, however, as each group demands fair representation in the country's cross-party government.
The result is a unique "magic formula," designed to condense complex electoral results into a seven-member Cabinet capable of governing by consensus in spite of sometimes widely differing views.
Despite its worse-than-expected result, the People's Party retains the biggest share of the vote and immediately laid claim to two seats in the Cabinet, whose ministers run federal agencies and take turns as president for a year.
The party has built up a strong base of voters with campaigns warning of immigrants spoiling an Alpine nation that's been an oasis of relative stability within stormy Europe.
In its campaign, the SVP accused foreigners of driving up Switzerland's crime rate, and called for those convicted of crimes to be deported. It also wants to reintroduce quotas on immigration from the 27 countries of the European Union, of which Switzerland isn't a member, illustrating the point with striking posters of black boots stomping on the Swiss flag with the message "Stop Mass Immigration."
The number of foreigners living in Switzerland rose almost 3 percent to 1.7 million over the past year — mostly Italians, Germans, Portuguese and Serbs. Switzerland, along with Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, has one of the highest proportions of foreign inhabitants in Europe.
They account for one of every five of the country's nearly 7.9 million permanent residents, and mostly live in the large cities of Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne and Bern.
Many foreigners who work in Switzerland come for jobs for which they're considered highly qualified, but that hasn't stopped the Swiss from worrying that the influx of outsiders in their midst is spurring a rise in crime, house prices and joblessness.
For some voters, however, the People's Party's relentless focus on foreigners went too far.
Pushing a stroller in the capital Bern with his twin 1-year-old sons — half Swiss, half Sri Lankan — architect Timo Odoni pointed to one of the nationalists' posters.
"I just can't stand how they do their posters because it reminds me of 60 years before, in Germany, a little bit. And we have to do something about it," Odoni said.
"I certainly will vote the green and left parties," he said. "We have no problem with immigration, really. We have other problems, but not this problem."
Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Geneva.
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