Swiss voters have rejected parliament-backed proposals to make it easier for young foreigners to become citizens, in nationwide ballots on Sunday.
They also turned down a plan to prevent the closure of rural post offices, but finally approved statutory maternity benefits, which were voted on for the fourth time.
Christoph Blocher, the Swiss justice minister, said the government would have to accept voters’ decision on citizenship, adding there were no plans to present new proposals.
His rightwing Swiss People’s Party had campaigned vigorously against the proposed easing of restrictions, and he personally voted against the proposals while he was still a member of parliament.
A majority of cantons and voters threw out the proposals, which would have granted automatic citizenship to third-generation foreigners, and eased naturalisation restrictions on the second generation.
It was the second time in a decade that voters refused to ease citizenship rules. Foreigners currently number 1.5 million – about 20 per cent of the population, and one in four of those were born in Switzerland.
The votes were clearly split along the language divide, with nearly all French-speaking cantons accepting the changes, while German-speaking regions gave them the thumbs-down.
The campaign before the vote was particularly bitter and controversial. Opponents, led by the People's Party, said the proposals would have undervalued Swiss citizenship.
In the run-up, the party ran controversial newspaper advertisements that claimed that Muslims would eventually become a majority in Switzerland if the citizenship rules were eased.
Ueli Maurer, the party’s president, said he was surprised by the strong result, adding that it clearly showed that foreigners were a political issue. Polls six weeks ago showed voters accepting the changes.
His colleague Ulrich Schlüer, the man behind the controversial advertisements, said the discussions about the presence of Muslims in Switzerland showed that the government had failed to present an important issue to voters.
Statutory maternity benefits finally cleared the voting hurdle on their fourth try. Working women will now be eligible for 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave.
Until now, it has been up to individual employers whether they pay maternity benefits, although the principle was enshrined in the Swiss constitution more than 50 years ago.
Many large private companies and employers in the public sector have implemented maternity leave schemes voluntarily, but women in unregulated branches of industry have no entitlements.
Opposed only by the People’s Party, which had backed a nationwide vote against these benefits, the decision to implement them was supported by over 55 per cent of voters.
The Swiss Arts and Trades Union, which represents small business interests, said it was satisfied with the outcome after opposing benefits for years. Its director, Pierre Triponez, had been behind the latest proposal.
Switzerland’s unions also hailed the result, but added that it was the strict minimum for Switzerland’s mothers.
Voters refused to slow down reforms to the country’s postal services.
A people’s initiative was rejected after gaining acceptance from only nine out of 25 cantons. But it was a slim majority of voters - 50.2 per cent – that gave the go-ahead to the planned changes.
The government, parliament and the main parties, except for the centre-left Social Democrats, were against the initiative by trade unions and the country’s leading consumer group.
The Post Office evidently convinced voters that, despite cuts, it would continue to keep up a nationwide post office network, notably in remote mountain regions.
Communications Minister Moritz Leuenberger, a Social Democrat, described the result as "a positive signal for change within the public service". He added that the slim majority for reform meant that changes had to be carried out at a socially acceptable rhythm.
Overall participation was higher than usual in Sunday’s ballot, with 53 per cent of eligible citizens casting a vote. Turnout normally runs at around 45 per cent.
swissinfo with agencies
Two votes on easing citizenship restrictions for young foreigners were thrown out by 56.8% and 51.6%.
55.4% of voters approved statutory maternity benefits for working women.
50.2% rejected plans to prevent closure of 800 post offices.
Voter turnout: 53%.
The vote was split along linguistic lines, with most French-speakers supporting all four proposals.
German-speakers rejected both citizenship votes, but narrowly voted in favour of maternity benefits.
Voter participation was higher than usual, with about 53% turning out to have their say compared with the usual 45%.