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Swiss vote in referendum on tough citizenship rules for foreigners

Swiss voters went to the polls yesterday in a referendum proposed by the far-right Swiss People's Party that would make it much harder for foreigners to become naturalised citizens.
The controversial proposal would give local communities the power to decide by a popular vote which immigrants are granted naturalisation, with no right to appeal.
At present, the decision is made by an ad-hoc commission, usually at the level of regional cantons or communes.
Switzerland's multi-party government — which includes two People's Party (SVP) ministers generally perceived as moderates — is against the initiative which it deems arbitrary and discriminatory, a view shared by most members of parliament.
The SVP has long made the question of "foreigners" in Switzerland one of its hobby-horses — they made up a fifth of the Swiss population according to a 2006 census — and this weekend's vote is the sixth time it has launched a popular referendum on the subject.
The SVP has transformed itself from a small farmers' party into a fiercely populist force with an anti-immigrant message over the past few decades, and scored 29 percent in last October's general elections.
The party drew accusations of racism from a United Nations expert during last year's general election for a poster showing three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag.
This time around it has plastered the country with posters showing a sea of black and brown hands grasping for a pile of Swiss passports, with the word "STOP!" in huge letters.
Switzerland defines nationality by virtue of blood, and those foreigners who wish to acquire citizenship must navigate a lengthy naturalisation procedure, demonstrating a good knowledge of the country's traditions, history and culture — after having lived at least 12 years on Swiss soil.
Children who have one Swiss parent, or the partner of a Swiss citizen, can benefit from a fast-track procedure.
The SVP proposal harks back to a controversial case at the beginning of the decade, when the small commune of Emmen in the eastern canton of Lucerne decided to rule on naturalisation cases by a popular vote.
In 2000, the commune approved eight candidates of Italian origin, but rejected all 48 applications from people from the Balkans.
Switzerland's federal court subsequently ruled that this was discriminatory after the unsuccessful applicants complained. Under the SVP proposals, they would not have this right of appeal.
Polls close at 1000 GMT and results were due to be announced at around 2300 yesterday Macau time.