BERN, Switzerland — Swiss citizens voting in national elections Sunday were poised to hand nationalists an unprecedented 30 percent voice, following voting dominated by concerns about immigration, nuclear power and the economy.
The Swiss People's Party was well ahead of other parties, at 29.3 percent in a recent opinion poll. It has been running campaign ads that stoke fears of immigrants spoiling an Alpine nation that's been an oasis of relative stability within stormy Europe.
The party's 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.
"Because the people are the sovereign, because we have this very special (political) system, 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 party accused foreigners of driving up Switzerland's crime rate, and is campaigning for those convicted of crimes to be deported.
The nationalists and centrist parties are competing 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 largely determines 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.
The Swiss People's Party is expected to demand a second seat in the seven-member Cabinet if it gains the most votes, which could force more moderate parties to vacate one of their seats. That could affect a range of issues such as the plans to phase out nuclear power by 2034.
Bern architect Timo Odoni pushed a stroller with his twin 1-year-old sons — half Swiss, half Sri Lankan — and the family's dog to the polls in the Swiss capital on a foggy Sunday morning.
Nearby, a small group of tourists had the central square to themselves gazing at the Swiss parliament building and Swiss National Bank. The young father frowned as he passed one of the Swiss nationalists' posters on the quiet morning streets.
"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.
Milene Hauri said she was worried about the rising cost of Switzerland's private health insurance system, and the lack of affordable housing in Geneva because "the rental agencies have too much power and aren't providing enough apartments." Geneva has seen an influx of highly-educated foreign professionals as multi-national companies relocate to the lakeside city for its low tax rate, squeezing locals out of the housing market.Comment on this story
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.
Switzerland also provides a home to refugees and is committed to humanitarian work like that of the Red Cross, and allows European Union nationals to enter without a passport as part of the border-free Schengen Zone.
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.
Frank Jordans contributed to this report.