* Vote is a boost to right-wing Swiss People's Party
* Likely to damage Swiss image
By Sam Cage
ZURICH, Nov 30 A Swiss vote to ban the construction of new minarets puts the spotlight on the Alpine country's social and political divisions and could herald a new surge in populist, anti-immigrant sentiment.
The unexpected vote and high turnout in Sunday's referendum gives a boost to the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP), a relatively new political force that has shaken up the country's traditionally cosy power-sharing system. [ID:nGEE5AS05E]
"It could well be the beginnings of a new right-wing surge," said Clive Church, a Swiss politics expert from Kent University.
The SVP, which has grown rapidly since the 1980s to become Switzerland's largest party, has been accused of racism for its strident anti-immigration campaigns, including a poster showing a white sheep kicking black sheep off a Swiss flag. It campaigned against extending the right of European Union citizens to live and work in non-EU member Switzerland, which voters approved in February despite SVP posters of three long-beaked sinister-looking ravens picking at a small map of Switzerland. [ID:nL7312972]
The SVP won the largest share of the vote in a 2007 general election but its fortunes have since faded: a faction split off to form another party, at one point it lost all its cabinet seats and it has had little success in referenda. Until now.
The SVP poster for Sunday's vote featured a Swiss flag covered in missile-like minarets and the portrait of a woman covered with a black chador and veil, associated with strict Islam, continuing the line of provocative election literature.
While Switzerland's Muslim community of some 300,000 is relatively small there is wider concern about immigration in a country where foreigners make up more than a fifth of the total 7.7 million population.
Nationwide voter turnout was about 53 percent, higher than a more usual 35 to 45 percent, and 22 of 26 cantons, or provinces, voted in favour of the initiative. The decision went against recent polls, which had indicated a slim majority opposed a ban.
There was marked division between urban areas like Zurich and French-speaking areas -- which are traditionally more liberal -- and rural, German speaking cantons like Schaffhausen, where some 70 percent of voters supported the initiative.
"It represents a two finger gesture against the towns, foreigners, the powerful, the better educated and the like. The pattern of voting confirms that," said Swiss culture and politics expert Jonathan Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania.
Switzerland has suffered an identity crisis since the end of the Cold War robbed its neutrality of much meaning, helping fuel the rise of the SVP.
Switzerland's relations with the Muslim world are already strained over the detention of two Swiss businessmen in Libya following the 2008 arrest in Geneva of Muammar Gaddafi's son on charges, later dropped, of mistreating two domestic staff.
In a front page editorial, Algeria's Le Soir newspaper said Switzerland should be tackling religious intolerance, not Muslims who want to practise their faith in peace.
"This vote is shocking because it took place in a state which advocates secularism and which prides itself on treating all religions on an equal basis," Le Soir said.
It is also likely to complicate relations beyond the Arab world and France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told French radio RTL the vote was "oppressing a religion".
Protests against the vote in Zurich and Berne attracted few attendees, however, while supporters were jubilant.
"We'll definitely celebrate," Nadja Pieren, who attended a rally supporting the ban, told Reuters. "It's to show that we don't want political Islam in Switzerland. We don't have a problem with people who pray in mosques." (Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Algiers, Catherine Bosley in Berne and Sophie Hardach in Paris; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +41 (0)58 306 7457; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))