BERN, Switzerland (AP) — Swiss voters appeared Sunday to have denied nationalists an unprecedented 30 percent share of the vote, souring on the People's Party's relentless campaign against immigration while rewarding rivals who emphasized issues such as nuclear power.
The People's Party had come well ahead of other parties, at 29.3 percent, in a recent opinion poll, running campaign ads warning of immigrants spoiling an Alpine nation that's been an oasis of relative stability within stormy Europe.
But exit polls Sunday indicated the party will miss its target of 30 percent, as voters backed a moderate group that split from the party four years ago and a new centrist environmental party that has campaigned to end the use of nuclear power in Switzerland.
Results for 245 seats in Switzerland's upper and lower chamber trickled in after polls closed at noon. A final result for most votes was expected late Sunday or early Monday.
The People's Party accused foreigners of driving up Switzerland's crime rate, and campaigned for those convicted of crimes to be deported. It also wants to reintroduce quotas on immigration from the 27 countries of the European Union, of which Switzerland isn't a member.
Its striking posters of black boots stomping on the Swiss flag with the message "Stop Mass Immigration" build on earlier graphically successful campaigns featuring white sheep kicking out a black sheep or dark hands grasping for Swiss passports.
"For us it's not acceptable that we have to open the frontiers and we have no possibility to say who can come, and under which conditions. We want to regulate this," said Oskar Freysinger, a hardline People's Party lawmaker.
The nationalists and centrist parties have competed with two small green parties and environmental-minded candidates of all stripes, making gains amid growing anti-nuclear power sentiment in the wake of the March disaster at Japan's Fukushima reactor.
Turnout in Switzerland was expected to be close to 50 percent and the results may not be known until late Sunday or early Monday. Run-off ballots may be needed in some of the country's 26 cantons (states) for Senate seats.
The parliamentary election heavily influences the composition of the Cabinet, where the ministers run federal agencies and take turns as president for a year. The result of this election, which is held once every four years, could lead to a shift in Switzerland's multiparty, consensus-focused Cabinet.
Switzerland's president and foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, is retiring from Swiss politics at the end of this year. The seat vacated by Calmy-Rey, one of the country's most colorful politicians, will be hotly contested during a Dec. 14 parliamentary vote for all seven Cabinet seats.
There also has been uncertainty over whether the popular finance minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who broke with the People's Party and formed her own more moderate faction, will be able to keep her seat. If she does, she would likely serve as president next year.
The Swiss People's Party is expected to demand a second seat in the seven-member Cabinet if — as expected — it gains the most votes. The party's anti-immigrant stance continues to hold a strong appeal in rural areas.
The number of foreigners living in Switzerland rose almost 3 per cent to 1.7 million over the past year — mostly Italians, Germans, Portuguese and Serbs. Switzerland, along with Luxemburg and Liechtenstein, has one of the highest proportions of foreign inhabitants in Europe.
They account for one of every five of the country's nearly 7.9 million permanent residents, and mostly live in one of the five large cities of Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne and Bern.
The immigration debate has focused on jobs and crime. Many of the foreigners who work in Switzerland come for jobs for which they're considered highly qualified, but that hasn't stopped the Swiss from worrying about the influx of foreigners in their midst vying for jobs, pricey real estate and other day-to-day needs.
The free movement accord between Switzerland and the European Union also has been a hot topic, particularly in cities like Geneva and Basel and in the canton of Ticino where authorities say foreign criminals make day trips across Swiss open borders with France, Germany and Italy.
In the capital Bern, architect Timo Odoni expressed disquiet at the People's Party's relentless focus on foreigners.
Pushing a stroller with his twin 1-year-old sons — half Swiss, half Sri Lankan — he pointed to one of the Swiss nationalists' posters. "I just can't stand how they do their posters because it reminds me of 60 years before, in Germany, a little bit. And we have to do something about it," Odoni said.
"I certainly will vote the green and left parties," he said. "We have no problem with immigration, really. We have other problems, but not this problem."
In Geneva, Thierry Perroud said the issues that most concerned him were social security, nuclear power and the anti-immigration policies of the People's Party.
"I don't want Switzerland to close its borders to foreigners," said Perroud, casting his vote at a school in Geneva, accompanied by his young son.
Immigration has long concerned the Swiss, who during World War II accepted 27,000 Jews but then claimed "the boat is full" to scale back rescues of those most likely to suffer death at the hands of the Germans. It's a nation of increasing xenophobia and yet there are thousands of foreign workers and its residents have four official languages — and often switch readily between German and French, or English, as they welcome millions of tourists each year.
The nation prides itself on its unique system of direct democracy, giving voters veto power over the government in frequent referendums, but it only gave women the vote in 1971.
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Frank Jordans contributed to this report.