Political observers say Swiss voters’ rejection of proposals to ease citizenship requirements for foreign residents could damage the country’s image abroad.
They fear that the double no vote will reinforce the view of Switzerland as a conservative nation leaning ever further to the right.
On Sunday, a majority of voters and cantons turned down two proposals which would have made it easier for young foreigners – many of them born and raised in Switzerland - to get a Swiss passport.
At the same time voters approved a proposal on introducing statutory maternity benefits to working mothers.
Emanuel von Erlach, a political analyst from Bern University, said the result of the citizenship vote was not a big surprise, but was nevertheless concerning.
“It’s embarrassing and it’s shaming,” he told swissinfo. “Switzerland’s conservative image will be reinforced by this.”
Fear of foreigners
He said the outcome was consistent with voting patterns over the past ten to 20 years, which had reflected “a fear of foreigners”.
But the result was surprising in that it did not correspond to the predictions of opinion polls. In the run-up to the vote, they had indicated that the two proposals on easing naturalisation for second- and third-generation foreigners would be accepted.
Von Erlach said a last-minute advertising campaign by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party - raising fears of a Muslim majority in Switzerland and depicting dark-skinned foreigners grabbing at Swiss passports - had probably swayed many people to vote no.
“There was this extremely strong, bordering on racist, propaganda by the opponents [of eased naturalisation], and I guess they were able through misinforming citizens to raise fears of Switzerland being overrun by foreigners,” von Erlach said.
A leading foreign expert on Swiss politics, Clive Church, agreed: “I suppose a lot of people must feel that there is a danger of a kind of loss of control [to foreigners].”
Church also expressed fears over the impact the result would have on Switzerland’s image.
“People actually know very little about Switzerland, and they only tend to hear bad news,” he told swissinfo. “With this result, people are going to say ‘you’re just like [far-right leaders Jörg] Haider and [Jean-Marie] Le Pen’.”
Claude Longchamp, the director of the Bern-based GfS polling institute, said early analysis of the results showed the vote was not against foreigners in general, but ex-Yugoslavs in particular.
Longchamp said that while cantons with large foreign populations had been more in favour of easing citizenship restrictions, “cantons with large numbers of ex-Yugoslavs were decidedly against”.
Off the agenda
Von Erlach said the government would now be concerned with explaining the reasons for its defeat and was likely to lay most of the blame at the door of the People’s Party.
But fear of the rightwing party’s increased importance in the political landscape meant it was unlikely that the government would make any concerted effort in the next ten years to relax citizenship rules.
“Probably the government won’t risk another defeat,” he said.
The government can at least console itself with its ballot box victory in introducing statutory maternity benefits. Although a provision for maternity pay has been enshrined in the constitution for 50 years, three previous attempts at introducing statutory benefits have failed in recent years.
Von Erlach said the latest proposal had succeeded because it was much more modest than previous proposals, providing maternity pay for working mothers only.
Another crucial reason was that the initiative had the backing of a “broad coalition” of political parties, employees and employers.
swissinfo, Morven McLean
Analysts say voters’ rejection of proposals aimed at easing naturalisation could reinforce a negative image of Switzerland.
Clive Church argues that Switzerland’s perceived fear of foreigners could lead to it being seen as extremely rightwing.
The GfS research institute says analysis of the vote shows an anti-Yugoslav bias among the Swiss.