GENEVA (AP) — Swiss voters are being asked to decide on a proposal to cap immigration to the Alpine republic, a long-standing demand of the country's most powerful party.
If the measure is approved in a referendum Sunday, the government would have to renegotiate painstakingly forged treaties with the European Union on the free movement of workers. It could also put Switzerland — which prides itself on a long humanitarian tradition — at odds with international accords on asylum.
Opinion polls show growing support for the plan, which would impose an absolute limit on the number of foreigners who can move to Switzerland each year.
Some 43 percent of people surveyed on Jan. 21 backed the proposal by the nationalist Swiss People's Party, with 50 percent opposed and 7 percent undecided. A month earlier only 37 percent were in favor, with 55 percent against and 8 percent undecided.
"The outcome is difficult to predict this time, especially if voter participation increases further," said Claude Longchamp, head of polling organization gfs.bern that conducted the survey of 1,420 voters. The poll had a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points.
Although Swiss voters have in the past approved various measures loosening immigration rules, pundits have been wary of predicting which way referendums on the issue will go since being caught by surprise in 2009 when voters approved a plan to ban the construction of new minarets.
The People's Party, which has over a quarter of the seats in Switzerland's lower house, has stoked fears of mass immigration in recent weeks. Posters have sprung up around the country showing a huge tree crushing a map of Switzerland. Another depicts a heavily veiled woman beneath the headline "1 million Muslims soon?"
According to official figures about 500,000 people in the nation of 8 million identified themselves as Muslim. Many of them are former refugees who fled to Switzerland during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Only a minority are actively religious.
The Swiss government has warned that the referendum could harm Switzerland's economy and its relationship with its EU neighbors. Switzerland isn't a member of the 28-nation bloc but has signed numerous bilateral cooperation agreements with Brussels including one that ensures EU citizens can live and work in Switzerland, while Swiss citizens can do the same in the EU.
Two years ago Switzerland introduced quotas for immigrants from eight central and eastern European nations, a move that was heavily criticized by the EU.
The new proposal would go further, extending such quotas to immigrants from Western Europe and introduce limits on all foreigners' rights to bring in family members or access Swiss social services.
Switzerland's distinct system of popular democracy means voters are regularly asked to decide on new laws. The outcome of a referendum is binding.
On Sunday, voters will also decide on a range of other national and local proposals, including a plan by conservative groups to remove abortion from the list of treatments covered by standard health insurance.