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Swiss People's Party Looks Set to Become Country's Most Powerful Political Group - 2003-10-19

Swiss voters went to the polls Sunday in parliamentary elections that take place every four years for the 200 seat lower house, or National Council, and the 46 seat upper house, or Council of States.

In a spectacular strengthening of its position, the nationalist, right-wing, Swiss People's Party, the SVP, looks set to become the country's most powerful political grouping.

Counting in the 26 cantons, into which this country of 7.3 million people is divided, goes on until early Monday. But exit polls and partial results gave the SVP 55 seats in the National Council, a gain of 11, and a jump of nearly 5 percent from the 22.5 percent of the vote it got in 1999.

This puts it ahead of the Socialist Party, which is now due to hold 54 seats, three more than before. The losers in this polarization of the Swiss political scene were two centrist parties, which were the other main contenders.

Traditionally, the SVP is rooted in the German speaking part of Switzerland but it has now achieved its aim of making inroads into the French speaking cantons of western Switzerland, especially Geneva.

The SVP campaigned on a mix of nationalist, anti-immigrant and low tax policies, with full page newspaper adds accusing asylum seekers of abusing the Swiss system, and attacking Albanian and African immigrants for drug trafficking and other criminal activities. It also played on widespread fears about the declining state of the Swiss economy and issues like the escalating cost of health insurance.

The driving force behind the SVP's rise is a millionaire Zurich industrialist, Christof Blocker, and he has lost no time in putting himself forward for membership in the seven-member Federal Council, which runs Switzerland.

Membership in this ruling body is organized by the four main parties on a cozy power-sharing system known as the magic formula, which has operated for the past 44 years.

The SVP has until now held only one of the seven seats and its claim to a second would mean the ousting of one of the other members. Elections to the council take place on December 10 and fierce arguments have already broken out in response to Mr. Blocker's declared intention to compete.

Last year he unsuccessfully opposed Switzerland's decision to join the United Nations and he is equally hostile to any idea of Swiss entry into the European Union. But such key moves are not decided in the council, but by direct national referendum. Never-the-less, Swiss politics may be entering a more lively period than has been the case for a long time.