BERN, Switzerland — Swiss voters backed moderate forces in a general election Sunday in which nationalists failed in their effort to break through the 30 percent barrier with a campaign heavy on anti-immigrant sentiment.
The nationalist Swiss People's Party, or SVP, was projected to take 26.8 percent of the vote for the lower house, a drop of 2.1 percent on four years ago, according to public television station SF.
"We didn't achieve our election goal," People's Party president Toni Brunner conceded as results trickled in.
The party's rise was stalled by the Conservative Democratic Party whose members split from the SVP in 2007, and the centrist Green Liberal Party, which successfully rode a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment following the disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant in March.
Both are expected to receive about 5.5 percent of the vote for the 200-seat National Council. Voters are also deciding on 45 of 46 seats for the upper house, or Council of States.
The panoply of political parties in makes for intense haggling after every election, as each group demands fair representation in the country's cross-party government.
The result is Switzerland's unique "magic formula," designed to condense complex electoral results into a seven-member Cabinet capable of governing by consensus despite sometimes widely differing views.
Despite its worse-than-expected result, the People's Party retains the biggest share of the vote and immediately laid claim to two Cabinet seats.
The party has built up a strong base of voters with campaigns warning of immigrants spoiling an Alpine nation that's been an oasis of relative stability within stormy Europe.
In its campaign, 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, illustrating the point with striking posters of black boots stomping on the Swiss flag with the message "Stop Mass Immigration."
The number of foreigners living in Switzerland rose almost 3 percent to 1.7 million over the past year — mostly Italians, Germans, Portuguese and Serbs. Switzerland, along with Luxembourg 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.
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 that the influx of outsiders in their midst is spurring a rise in crime, house prices and joblessness.
For some voters, however, the People's Party's relentless focus on foreigners went too far.
Pushing a stroller in the capital Bern with his twin 1-year-old sons — half Swiss, half Sri Lankan — architect Timo Odoni pointed to one of the 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."
Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Geneva.
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