Switzerland's anti-immigration, anti-European party has scored dramatic electoral gains that could block the country's plans for European integration and upset its delicate system of government-by-compromise.
The Swiss People's Party soared in Sunday's voting, according to preliminary results, winning 15 new seats for a total of 44 in the National Council, the lower house of parliament--double its previous number. The party will have the second-highest number of seats, putting it in position for the first time to dictate the shape of the next governing coalition.
Campaigning against Switzerland's asylum policy and the influx of 50,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo earlier this year, People's Party candidates took protest votes from the three other main parties of left, center and right.
The Social Democrats remained the largest party with 51 delegates in the assembly, while the centrist Radical Democrats dropped to third with 43 delegates, according to projections. The right-of-center Christian Democrats were reduced to junior partner in the coalition, with 35 seats. The environmentalist Greens kept their nine seats, while the right-wing Freedom Party lost all of its seven seats. Final results were expected later in the week.
"Not even an electoral system designed to preserve the status quo could restrain the rise" of the People's Party, observed Christopher Hans in Geneva's Le Temps newspaper today.
The vote provided a bigger than expected boost for nationalist businessman Christoph Blocher and other People's Party candidates, as the party reached beyond its traditional constituencies in German-speaking Switzerland into French-speaking cantons.
The vote followed a comparable political earthquake in neighboring Austria three weeks ago when the similarly oriented Freedom Party of Joerg Haider won 27 percent in parliamentary elections and status as a government power broker.
Switzerland's balloting added another European country to the list of those where citizens are prone to vote their anxieties about change, the growing number of immigrants and the effects of an impersonal global economy.
"Among other things, this means it will be extremely difficult for the government to proceed with its stated plans to join the European Union. It's a clear signal that won't happen any time soon," said Marcus Schefer of the University of Bern's Institute of Public Law.
Most important to the immediate complexion of Swiss politics, Blocher, the best known People's Party leader, has claimed a second seat on the supreme governing seven-person Federal Council.
The strict apportionment of those seats--Blocher's party has one, and three other parties two apiece--has been virtually sacrosanct since 1919 under a system of trade-offs and compromises known as the "magic formula." Adding Blocher to the council would mean demoting another party.
Blocher is a striking personage to have emerged on the edges of Switzerland's traditional coalition rule of left, center and right parties. A rumpled businessman who can deliver blunt oratory, he presides over a multinational chemical company with plants from Taiwan to South Carolina.
This is a disarming pedigree for a man who wants Switzerland to defend its traditional isolation and neutrality. He says if Switzerland joins the European Union, which more and more Swiss believe is desirable and inevitable, it will be swallowed by a bureaucracy and will forfeit its sovereignty.
Blocher's anti-foreigner rhetoric does not include the antisemitic language common in some other European far-right parties, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France. But critics say Blocher does not speak out forcefully enough against his supporters who traffic in Nazi Holocaust denial, and during the campaign he was accused of praising a book containing such claims.
CAPTION: Christoph Blocher, leader of Swiss People's Party, wants another seat in the cabinet for his rightist party.