GENEVA – Swiss voters on Sunday approved a plan to automatically deport foreigners who commit serious crimes or benefit fraud, in a significant victory for the nationalist party that pushed the proposal against the will of the government.
Some 52.9 percent of voters backed the proposal put forward by the nationalist Swiss People's Party. The plan was opposed by 47.1 percent of voters.
A government-backed counterproposal failed. It would have required case-by-case review by a judge before an individual was deported.
The government will now have to draft a law requiring automatic expulsion of foreigners found guilty of crimes such as murder, rape, drug dealing or benefit fraud.
"The majority of voters have sent a clear signal that they consider foreign criminality to be a serious problem," Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said in a statement. "The Federal Council respects the will of the people and will set to work on putting the task confided in it into practice."
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.
Concern about a perceived rise in crime led a majority of voters to approve the deportation plan in Sunday's referendum.
"I'm totally for it," said Emma Link after casting her vote in Geneva. The 86-year-old said she had recently been robbed on her way home from a nearby store.
But legal experts say the law could breach offenders' human rights.
Marcelo Kohen, a professor of international law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, said people who had lived all their life in Switzerland, married Swiss citizens and had children, but never obtained Swiss passports, would be unusually hard hit by expulsion.
Kohen predicted the law would be challenged before the European Court of Human Rights.
Likewise, the European Union — with which Switzerland has signed a bilateral treaty guaranteeing freedom of movement — would probably object to its citizens being automatically deported without the chance of judicial review, he said.
During the run-up to the vote, anti-racism groups bemoaned that the People's Party's posters showed white sheep kicking black sheep off a Swiss flag, saying it played on stereotypical images of foreigners as criminals.
Virginie Studemann voted against the plan. "I think it's sad for our country," she said outside a polling station in the center of Geneva. "It's part of a concerted attack against foreigners."
Also Sunday, voters rejected a proposal to revise the country's tax system.
Swiss news agency SDA reported that 58 percent of voters opposed the plan, while 42 percent backed the proposal by the Social Democrat party to introduce a minimum tax across all Switzerland's 26 cantons, or states.
Polling group gfs.bern said earlier this month that initial enthusiasm for the plan evaporated after heavy campaigning by business groups, who warned it could harm the Swiss economy.
Several prominent billionaires also spoke out against the proposal and threatened to move abroad if it was accepted.