Swiss voters took part in a referendum on Sunday that could make it easier to deport foreigners who commit crimes. Abuse of the welfare system or traffic violations could trigger an exit under the proposals.
The anti-immigration People's Party (SVP), which won the biggest share of the vote in parliamentary elections last October, put forward the initiative "For the effective expulsion of foreign criminals." The SVP is the largest party in the Federal Assembly, with 65 members of the 200-seat lower house.
The referendum calls for approval of a two-level plan for dealing with foreigners who commit crimes. Those who commit offenses such as rape or armed robbery would be immediately deported after serving their jail term. For lesser offenses, such as traffic violations, the individual would be expelled if they committed a second violation within a ten-year time span.
According to the first projections on Sunday, the voters appear set to reject the SVP proposal.
"The trend has clearly gone in the 'no' direction," Claude Longchamp of the gfs.bern research and polling institute said of the vote on Swiss television. "We are definitely seeing less than 45 percent of the vote in favor."
A quarter of the people living in Switzerland have a foreign passport, the majority of them from European countries.
The Federal Council, Switzerland's seven-person executive body, called the initiative "inhuman, because it treats the roughly two million foreigners who live in Switzerland as second-class citizens."
Opinion polls ahead of Sunday's referendum suggest a tight vote, with campaigners on both sides invoking emotional imagery. The SVP used the visual of a white sheep on top of the national flag kicking away a black sheep.
Opponents of the plan have presented an image of a tattered swastika next to a large "No" to the referendum and placing Switzerland 2016 next to 1933 Nazi Germany and 1948 for apartheid South Africa. They argue that the initiative seeks to circumvent the courts by turning the expulsions into an administrative formality. Currently judges are able to weigh the merits of individual cases.
The federal statistics office estimates that more than 10,000 people could be affected by expulsions if the initiative passes.
Switzerland is not part of the 28-country European Union but it is part of the Schengen European zone of borderless travel.
jm/jr (Reuters, AP)