GENEVA – The posters show white sheep kicking black sheep off the Swiss flag.
They were widely condemned as racist when the Swiss People's Party launched them three years ago. Now, as the nationalist party's demand to automatically deport foreigners convicted of serious crimes goes before a Sunday referendum, the posters have been cropping up again in stations and squares.
Polls show the message is getting through.
A survey published last week by polling group gfs.bern showed 54 percent of voters approved the measure, which also proposes to kick out foreigners found guilty of benefit fraud. In the poll of 771 voters conducted Nov. 8-13, 43 percent opposed the plan and 3 percent were undecided.
Under Switzerland's unique political system, any group wanting to change the law can collect 100,000 signatures to force a referendum. Last year the country drew international condemnation after voters defied a government recommendation and approved a law to ban the construction of minarets.
Critics of the deportation proposal include legal experts, who say the law could clash with international treaties that Switzerland has signed up to.
"For the same crime some people will suffer one punishment, other people suffer two punishments," said Marcelo Kohen, a professor of international law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.
Kohen said foreigners who have lived all their life in Switzerland, married Swiss citizens and had children, would be unusually hard hit by expulsion. Likewise, under international law refugees cannot be sent back to their country of origin if they face persecution there.
"You have to analyze the concrete situation, and this is the main problem with the initiative," Kohen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. Other countries that have deportation laws allow judges to exercise discretion in deportation cases.
The federal government has put forward an alternative proposal that would require each deportation case to be individually examined by a judge. Voters will be able to choose between the two or reject both.
Georg Kreis, the president of the Federal Commission against Racism, said automatic expulsion, if approved, would lead to discrimination, but denied that the campaign indicated there was greater xenophobia in Switzerland than in neighboring countries.
"Direct democracy makes prejudice against minorities more visible," he told the AP by e-mail.
The black sheep posters were heavily criticized by anti-racism campaigners when they first appeared in 2007, for their not-so-subtle depiction of blacks as criminals. The U.N.'s racism expert at the time, Doudou Diene, noted that previous poster campaigns by the party had drawn on similarly stereotypical images to paint foreigners as felons and benefit cheats.
A senior People's Party official denied the black sheep posters were racist.
"In all four languages spoken in Switzerland, everybody understands when you're talking about black sheep you're talking about people who don't stick to the rules," Silvia Baer, who is deputy general secretary of the party, told the AP. "It's a figure of speech, so there is no problem with the posters."
Alexander Segert, head of the Swiss advertising agency that devised the campaign, said it was one of his company's most successful ever.
"It works incredibly well because everybody who sees it immediately understands it," said Segert. "It's not about skin color."
The company also produced a poster showing a swarthy-looking suspect from the Balkans with the words: "Ivan S., rapist."