A far-right party heading for a record margin of victory in general elections on Sunday has announced plans to turn Switzerland into an immigrant-free bastion.
Polls show that the Swiss People's Party (SVP) is likely to seal its place as Europe's most successful populist political force after a campaign targeting immigrants, whom its posters depict as black boots trampling on the Swiss flag.
As the election campaign drew to a close, the SVP announced that it had gathered the requisite 100,000 signatures to call a referendum, under Swiss direct democracy laws, on withdrawing from freedom of travel arrangements with the European Union.
This would mean a return to quotas of migrants from the EU, including Britain, limiting access to the Alpine state and reversing a decade of openness.
European companies would have to go through bureaucratic application procedures for their non-Swiss employees and EU visitors would lose the automatic right to stay there.
Analysts have dismissed the move as an election stunt, not least because a referendum would take up to two years to organise, but it fits a pattern of anti-immigrant campaigns backed by the SVP. These include the recent vote in the lower chamber of parliament to ban the Muslim veil, as well as a referendum last year in which Swiss voters backed a ban on the building of minarets.
“This seems like a last try to get some attention before the election,” said Georg Lutz, the director of Swiss Electoral Studies at the Swiss Foundation for Research in Social Sciences in Lausanne. “I do not think it will make too much difference to the election outcome because the Swiss People's Party is so far ahead. But it would be a disaster for Switzerland because if they managed to get it through it could mean the end of other bilateral agreements with the EU.
“It is popular, however - there has been a lot of immigration and in certain areas it puts quite serious pressure on the housing market.”
Researchers at the University of Freiburg in Germany, commissioned by the Swiss Liberal Party, have warned that breaching the freedom of movement agreement would lead to the EU cancelling other bilateral arrangements.
Switzerland is not in the EU but it has agreed to allow freedom of cross-border transit and employment for fellow Europeans, and its citizens to travel and work freely across the continent.
Silvia Bar, the SVP deputy-general secretary, said that she simply wanted Switzerland to return to its pre-2002 position of running its borders and immigration.
“We have the problem that there are too many coming from Europe and especially from Germany. They always say they are qualified people but we are not talking about professors of chemistry, it is just anyone who has a degree at university now,” she said.
She denied that the SVP played on fears of foreigners or racism. “If you do not speak about things that people see on a daily basis, you will see racism come. That is why we are talking frankly and clearly about problems we have.”
There is resistance to the party however. Its mascot, a goat, was kidnapped and painted black in protest at the party's policies.
After its breakthrough election in 1999, the SVP has gone from strength to strength and been the most consistently popular far-right party in Europe.
It stands at 29.3 per cent support in the latest opinion poll, well ahead of the Socialist Party in second place on 19.9 per cent, and higher than its record 28.9 per cent share of the vote in the 2007 election.
The next most consistently successful far-right party is the Freedom Party of Austria, which joined a coalition government in 2000-05, and has polled at 29 per cent support this summer with the next elections due in 2013.
Populist anti-immigrant parties have enjoyed rising success in the Netherlands, Hungary and Finland, where the True Finns increased their vote in this year's election to 19.1 per cent from 4.1 per cent in 2007. In Denmark support for the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, which was in government for 10 years from 2001, slipped slightly in last month's election from 13.8 to 12.3 per cent.
Under the Swiss system of consensus government by a seven-member Cabinet, made up of members from at least three parties, the SVP has made it clear that a convincing victory will lead it to demand an extra seat.