Although polling figures suggested that support for the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) initiative against “mass immigration” was strong, observers were caught off guard by a referendum result they never quite imagined would materialize.
In the end, just 19,516 votes separated the yes and no forces, with 50.3 percent backing the plan.
The yes vote was “surprising,” Blick newspaper said online, noting that the “SVP stood alone against the other major parties, the business community and the unions”.
The newspaper, which referred to the result as a “slap in the face” for Bern, said comments made last Sunday by former foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, calling for Switzerland to join the EU, may have tipped the balance.
“Spiteful Twitterers joked that she should be given an honorary membership in the SVP.”
Le Temps newspaper called the referendum result a “heavy defeat for the government, the majority of parliament and the business community” and a “new black Sunday” for Switzerland.
The people, with a tiny majority, “called into question one of the most important pillars of our prosperity, the free circulation of labour with the European Union,” the Geneva-based daily said.
It recalled that the country was divided, just as in 1992, when Swiss voters rejected joining the European Economic Area.
A majority in each of the French-speaking cantons opposed the quotas, while most German-speaking cantons backed the initiative, along with Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton, where 68 percent voted yes.
The consequences of the vote “will occupy us for years", said Res Strehle, editor-in-chief of Tages Anzeiger, the Zurich-based newspaper.
While a vote by the Swiss to ban minarets a few years ago was an act of “religious intolerance”, it had relatively little political impact, Strehle said.
By comparison the no vote for European freedom of movement with its “wafer-thin majority” is “a partial rejection of globalization and European integration”.
Swiss politicians need to seek a way to limit the damage and find “a new bilateral way, if there is one”.
“More serious than the unclear future relationship with the EU is the sign of xenophobia which Switzerland (with this vote) has sent out to the world,” Strehle said.
Representatives of the major political parties who opposed the SVP initiative, agreed on Sunday that the main goal now is to preserve a bilateral agreement with the EU.
Critics of the initiative have noted that it leaves many unanswered questions with regard to how exactly the proposed quotas would be put in place.
It fails, for example, to specify how many foreigners would be admitted, under what criteria and what government service would be responsible for applying the limits.
But Swiss business groups are clearly worried about the potential impact of the voters’ decision.
Hôtelleriesuisse, the Swiss Hotel Association, for example, said the rejection of free movement of workers constituted a “massive obstacle” for the country’s hotel industry, given that 40 percent of its employees are foreign.
It said the continuation of the labour deal with the EU was “essential” for the sector.
Also raised as a concern is the impact that immigrant quotas would have on Swiss citizens living in the European Union, who face being stripped of their rights to work in the 28-country bloc.
Bernard Rappaz, editor-in-chief at RTS, the French-language state broadcaster, said the vote had plunged Switzerland “into the unknown”.
The country, he said, was “torn between two different visions” on immigration, with on the one side, concerns raised about the adverse impact it had on housing and jobs, versus its positive role in propelling Swiss prosperity.