* 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.
"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
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
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
((email@example.com; +41 (0)58 306 7457; Reuters