A proposal to re-introduce immigration quotas has been winning ground over the past few weeks, according to the latest opinion poll. The outcome of the vote on February 9 may be decided by protest voters.
Supporters of the initiative, “against mass immigration”, by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party have increased their share by 6% since the end of December to 43%. At the same time opponents lost 5% and now have 50%. (For details see graphic below)
“Parties to the right have succeeded in particular in mobilising their grassroots across the country,” said Claude Longchamp, head of the leading GfS Bern research and polling institute.
The political scientist expects a high turnout in the ballot, notably among rightwing voters and people who have no clear political affiliations but who distrust the government.
This latter group of voters makes up about 20% of the electorate, according to Longchamp.
The GfS Bern survey, published on Wednesday by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, also found that a number of respondents, considered centrist or leftwing, sympathise with the idea of tightening immigration policy, but they want to stay away from the ballot box.
“The mobilisation by the political parties in the last days of the campaign will be decisive,” Longchamp summed up.
Turnout could reach 50% – the highest level since the last general elections in 2011, according to the pollsters.
Try and try again
Five times over the past 15 years voters have rejected attempts to curb immigration or limit the free movement of people from the European Union.
The People’s Party has warned that Switzerland can no longer cope with the influx of immigrants - around 80,000 annually over the past few years.
The rightwing party wants to re-introduce quotas, which would also include limits on the number of asylum seekers allowed in the country, to control immigration.
However, the government, the business community and most political parties say restrictions would undermine the country’s economic prosperity, lead to more red tape and put at risk a series of bilateral accords with the EU, Switzerland’s main trading partner.
The campaign in the run-up to the vote has been “short and intense”, as Longchamp pointed out.
“Media attention has been gigantic with adverts in the newspapers on a daily basis.”
It is estimated that the campaigns by supporters and opponents of the initiative cost around CHF10 million ($11.1 million).
Longchamp noted that the rightwing drive had a poor start, but had picked up speed. He said a turning point may have been the traditional assembly by the People’s Party in Zurich in mid-January where party leaders raised the tone and attacked the government and its immigration policy.
“Another major event in the remaining days of the campaign could boost public interest and possibly have a decisive impact on the outcome of the vote,” the political scientist added.
Railways and abortion
A further surge of support for the rightwing proposal may also prompt a rejection of a constitutional article setting up a special fund for the financing of the country’s railway infrastructure. It will also come to a nationwide vote on February 9.
However, a third issue to be decided on that day - an initiative by a committee of conservatives and rightwingers to scrap the public funding of abortions - is unlikely to win a majority. Supporters lag 22% behind opponents.
In 2002 Swiss voters overwhelmingly voted in favour of legalising the termination of pregnancies within the first 12 weeks. Medical interventions are paid for as part of Switzerland’s mandatory health insurance coverage.
Switzerland has one of the lowest abortion rates in Europe. Surgeries cost CHF8 million annually according to official data, making up 0.03% of total expenditure by health insurers per year.
SBC poll data
The pollsters interviewed 1,420 Swiss citizens from across the country for the second of two nationwide surveys ahead of the February 9 vote.
Swiss expatriates are not included in the poll.
The telephone interviews took place between January 20-25.
The margin of error is2.7%.
The survey was commissioned by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, swissinfo’s parent company, and carried out by the leading GfS Bern research and polling institute.
Issues at stake
Voters decide on three separate issues:
An initiative by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party for the re-introduction of annual immigration quotas, including asylum seekers.
A proposal by a group of conservatives to take abortions off the list of medical treatments covered by the mandatory health insurance.
A constitutional amendment defining the financing of railway infrastructure projects.
It is the first of up to four sets of nationwide ballots this year.
At the same time, elections and votes on a variety of issues take place at cantonal and local level.
By Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch