A right-wing proposal to automatically expel all delinquent foreigners from Switzerland was voted down Sunday in a referendum that had come to be seen as a test of the Swiss legal and political system, public broadcaster SRF reported.
If passed, the measure would have seen extraditions, without judicial review, for foreigners for minor and serious crimes.
Even before votes from all 26 cantons were counted, it became clear that a majority of the cantons had voted no. Under Swiss referendum rules, the initiative by the populist People's Party (SVP) was therefore officially defeated.
According to a partial vote count, nearly 57 per cent opposed the plan by the SVP, which became the strongest party in parliament after October elections thanks to an anti-immigration campaign.
"We have enough of fear-mongering," said Flavia Kleiner, the head of a broad political platform that opposed the initiative. The SVP had pushed the measure as a way to bring down crime rates.
Opponents had warned that the proposal would undermine both the rule of law and the judiciary branch, as judges would have had no say on whether an expulsion is warranted or excessive in each case.
This restriction would have especially affected Switzerland's large community of second- and third-generation immigrants, who risked being forced back to the homelands of their forefathers even though they have no language skills and social connections to cope there.
"It's a signal from a broad share of civil society that Switzerland is a successful country when it stands for diversity," Kleiner said.
Nearly a quarter of Switzerland's 8.3 million inhabitants have foreign citizenship, the second-highest rate in Europe after Luxembourg.
Many intellectuals and legal professionals had also warned that a Yes vote would weaken the democratic system, because the SVP launched its initiative to bypass an ongoing parliamentary process on a similar bill.
In addition, critics said that extraditions for minor crimes run counter to the Swiss-EU agreement on freedom of movement and would create further tensions with Brussels.
Relations have been strained since an SVP referendum on curbing immigration from the European Union and beyond won a narrow majority in 2014.
Now that the new right-wing initiative has been rejected, the parliamentary bill is set to be turned into law. In contrast to the SVP draft, it mainly foresees expulsions for grave crimes, while giving courts the right to review individual cases to exclude hardship cases.
"The hardship clause will be abused" by courts, SVP parliamentary leader Adrian Amstutz warned in a first reaction.
Under the existing criminal law, 500 delinquent foreigners were expelled last year. The number would have risen above 10,200 if the SVP rules had been in place, according to the Swiss national statistics office.