Swiss politics on Sunday retained the capacity to surprise as reliable projections showed the ultraconservative Swiss People's party improved its already dominant position as the country's biggest political group.
The SVP raised its share of the vote by more than 2 percentage points to almost 29 per cent after an acrimonious campaign focused, as in the past, on the party's core issues of immigration and law and order.
The main losers were the left-of-centre Social Democrats (SP), whose share of the vote dropped by four points to 19.3 per cent, based on the exit polls. The Radicals (FDP) also suffered, with their vote falling by more than 1 percentage point to under 16 per cent.
Switzerland has for years been governed by a four-party coalition of the SVP, SP, Christian Democrat CVP and Radicals elected every four years by proportional representation. However, the hallowed principle of consensus has been strained increasingly by the rise of the SVP, which has indirectly pushed for the adversarial political systems typical of most other European countries.
Sunday's election is just the first stage in forming a government, as the seven ministers will be chosen only when today's newly elected parliamentarians meet for the first time in December.
SVP leaders had warned before the election that any attempt to strip their leader, Christoph Blocher, of his post as justice minister would trigger a political crisis by obliging the SVP to go into opposition.
The prospect of a challenge to Mr Blocher, who holds one of SVP's two cabinet posts, had come after signs that the party's steady rise over the past 15 years might have peaked. Pre-election polls had indicated the party might increase its representation marginally, but that the dramatic rises of recent years would not be repeated.
Tensions may also rise in December because of clashes between the CVP and the pro-business Radicals, two broadly similar parties both trying to counter secular decline.
The slight revival of CVP support in this election could prompt party leaders to reclaim the second cabinet post the party traditionally held but was forced to give up after the previous elections in 2003.
The CVP's second seat went to the SVP in belated recognition of the ultranationalists' steady rise in support.
This time, the pressure will be on the Radicals, once Switzerland's dominant party, to give ground after their share of the vote dropped again. ( FT )