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Swiss citizens have begun a vote on whether to limit the number of EU citizens entering the country each year. Despite having the support of only one political party, polls suggest the vote could still be close.
Referendum-happy Switzerland, where the law dictates that any petition garnering 100,000 signatures must be put to a nationwide vote, held three public polls on Sunday - with one in particular grabbing the headlines at home and abroad.
The conservative-nationalist Swiss People's Party (SVP) put forward a motion to limit the country's annual immigration from the EU, saying Switzerland's net population gain in 2013 was 80,000 people. The SVP has declined, however, to say what it would consider to be an acceptable annual limit.
An opinion poll conducted on January 21 found that 50 percent of participants opposed the proposal, 43 percent supported it and 7 percent were undecided. That represented a swing in favor of the "yes" vote over previous surveys.
The SVP, Switzerland's most powerful single party, is the only member of the country's four-party ruling coalition to endorse its bill.
Jan Atteslander of the Swiss Business Federation told Deutsche Welle that the country's buoyant economy "needs people who work."
Reciprocal deals at risk
Despite not being a member of the European Union, landlocked Switzerland only borders EU members and is included in both the European Free Trade Area and the open-border Schengen Zone. A "yes" vote on Sunday could have broad ramifications for Switzerland's special status with the EU.
Even though polls still point to a clear advantage for the "no" campaign, Swiss pundits are cautious on such issues after a surprise 2009 referendum when people defied the polls and approved a ban on the construction of minarets at Swiss mosques. One of the SVP's promotional posters for the immigration cap pictured a veiled Muslim woman with the caption: "1 million Muslims soon?" According to official figures, around 500,000 Swiss residents identify themselves as Muslim.
Around 8 million people live in Switzerland. The country's German community, numbering around 300,000, is the third-largest after the Swiss themselves and Italians.
The forgotten ballots
Also on Sunday, voters will decide on two other proposals. The first concerns the funding of the country's rail network, and suggests pooling the running, maintenance and expansion of the network into a single fund, also increasing state contributions to 5 billion francs (4.1 billion euros, $5.5 billion) per year from 4 billion currently. Proponents argue that it's necessary, primarily to catch up on recently-neglected repair and maintenance work on the lines. The SVP and two automotive lobby groups have opposed the proposal, but opinion polls pointed towards public approval.
The final referendum will ask Swiss voters whether abortions should be removed from the list of procedures included in standard health insurance packages. The bill's chances are considered slim, not least because at a referendum just 12 years ago, 72.2 percent of Swiss voters approved adding the procedure to standard health insurance packages.
In recent years, Switzerland has held public ballots on a broad range of topics as a result of its principle direct democracy. Issues put to the polls included gun control, a public smoking ban, whether abused animals should be assigned lawyers, and allowing shareholders to decide on pay limits for executives at publicly-traded Swiss companies.
msh/jlw (AP, dpa, epd)