Swiss voters went to the polls Sunday to decide whether to back a proposal to toughen the country's asylum laws. The plan was rejected by the very narrowest of margins.
The proposal, put forward by the populist right-wing Swiss People's Party, SVP, would have slammed the door shut on most asylum-seekers and severely cut the social security and other benefits available to those receiving asylum.
The plan to get tough on asylum-seekers was defeated by only 3,422 votes, the narrowest margin recorded since the referendum system began a century and a half ago.
More than 2.25 million people, or 47.22 percent of the electorate, voted, a characteristically low turn-out in such referenda.
Ruth Metzler, Justice Minister in Switzerland's seven-member Federal Council, voiced her relief and happiness that Switzerland could now continue to pursue what she called a humanitarian asylum policy.
"As one of the richest nations in the world, it would have reflected very badly on us if we became the first one to deny the right of asylum," she said. "But she added the government takes seriously the widespread concern over the involvement of asylum-seekers, who come mainly from the Balkans and West Africa, in drug trafficking and crime.
Delphine Marie, a spokeswoman for the United nations Commissioner for Refugees, whose headquarters are in Geneva, also expressed relief at the outcome of the vote. She said adoption of the plan to crack down on asylum seekers would have caused enormous problems for genuine refugees and for Switzerland's relations with its neighbors.
The backers of the plan had proposed that Switzerland admit no asylum-seekers who had already transited a country known to be safe and persecution-free.
In its campaign against the plan, the government asserted that this was completely unrealistic, since 95 percent of asylum-seekers arrive in land-locked Switzerland through neighboring countries such as France and Italy.
The solution, the government said, would be for Switzerland to continue its policy of trying to coordinate asylum policy with its neighbors, with a view to the return of some asylum-seekers to those countries.
The Swiss People's Party, which began its efforts to hold a referendum on asylum-seekers three years ago, when Switzerland saw a big influx of refugees from Kosovo, said Sunday's result was a missed opportunity to tackle the issue of abuse of the right of asylum. But it said the result had sent a clear signal to the government and other parties to keep their promises.
The SVP will also be able to capitalize on the fact that although narrowly defeated in the numerical vote, that plan actually won in a small majority of Switzerland's 26 cantons. The strongest-support for the plan came from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, where backing is strongest for the party's charismatic leader, billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher.
The Party increased its influence in its unsuccessful campaign earlier this year to keep Switzerland out of the United Nations and its arguments to keep Switzerland out of the European Union have a wide resonance.
Mr. Blocher's home canton of Zurich voted narrowly in favor of the SVP plan on Sunday, the strongest opposition came from the French-speaking canton of Geneva.