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Immigration, a Key  Issue in Switzerland's Parliamentary Elections - 2003-10-18

In Switzerland's parliamentary elections, attention is focused on an anti-immigrant party that looks set to make gains in Sunday's voting.

Predictions are that, this year, voters will further boost the standing of the right-wing Swiss People's Party - the SVP - one of the four main parties contesting the elections.

In 1999, it surged from 14 percent of the vote to 22.5 percent, and looks set to gain another two or three percentage points now.

The architect of the SVP's rise is the millionaire Zurich industrialist Christoph Blocher, whose nationalist, anti-immigrant and low-tax policies have found an increasingly receptive audience in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. The SVP is now seeking to build on this success by extending its appeal in the French-speaking cantons of western Switzerland, including Geneva.

In front page newspaper advertisements, the SVP claims that drug trafficking in Switzerland is controlled by Albanian and African gangs, and accuses asylum-seekers of "blatant abuse of Swiss hospitality."

These advertisements are now the subject of legal action by anti-racist groups, and have drawn an unusually sharp reaction from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through spokesman Ron Redmond. He says politicization of the asylum issue and the attempt to cast asylum-seekers and refugees in an ugly light in order to support a fixed political agenda is happening too often in industrialized countries.

"UNHCR is indeed very concerned about the tone of some of the publicity surrounding this weekend's election in Switzerland," said Mr. Redmond. "From what we've seen, it includes some of the most nakedly anti-asylum advertisements by a major political party that we've seen in Europe to date."

The SVP has also played skillfully on fears about the declining state of the Swiss economy, highlighted by last month's relatively high unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, and two years ago, by the spectacular collapse of the national airline.

But, under the stratified system of government in this country of 7.3 million people, parliamentary elections are not able to bring about significant changes. The country is run by a seven-member Federal Council, whose members take it in turn to be president for a one-year term. Membership in the council is organized on a fixed power-sharing basis among the four parties. This so-called "magic formula" has held for 44 years.

The SVP at present has one seat, but a continued rise in its support could lead it to ask for a second seat, displacing a member from one of the other three parties. The importance of central institutions in Switzerland is further diminished by the fact that issues like tax, health or policing are in the hands of local administrations of Switzerland's 26 cantons.