The SVP surged well in advance of political rivals for the first time on a racist election manifesto that blamed Albanians and black African asylum seekers for crime in Switzerland.

The projection by state channel TSR also signalled increasing polarisation of the normally docile political scene in one of western Europe's most stable democracies.

There has been an unexpected decline in support for the centre right Radicals and Christian Democratic Party (CVP), while the Socialists (SP) were set to make slight overall gains.

The projection gave the SVP 56 seats in the lower house of parliament, the National Council, and 27.2% of the vote, nearly 5% and 12 seats more than in the 1999 election.

Rocking the boat

That would propel the SVP well in advance of the Socialist Party (SP) on a projected 23.3% of the vote and 52 seats.

The four major political parties share power in the Swiss government, the Federal Council, under a 44 year-old arrangement.

Pre-election polls had indicated that the SVP could capture 25% of the vote on the back of a hard-line anti-asylum, low tax campaign.

The surge in electoral support for the right-wing Swiss People's Party over the past decade has coincided with the blustering emergence of a wealthy industrialist, Christoph Blocher, on Switzerland's political scene. 

Isolationist

A parliamentarian since 1979, Blocher shot to prominence on the national scene by heading the Association for an Independent Neutral and Independent Switzerland (AUNS), a lobby group campaigning to keep Switzerland outside the European Union and the United Nations.

In 1986, three-quarters of Swiss voters rejected United Nations' membership in a referendum, after Blocher poured money into AUNS and led an anti-UN campaign. The Swiss government managed to only reverse the result last year. 

Blocher made his fortune with a plastics and polymers group, EMS Chimie, which does business around the world, and like most of Swiss industry, recruits foreign workers.

The 63 year-old's influence helped the SVP strengthen its support in Switzerland's historic heartland, in the centre of the country, where voters have traditionally been wary of the outside world.

Although his party put out campaign material blatantly blaming "Albanians" and "black African" asylum seekers for crime, Blocher himself has avoided overt xenophobia, although he does not shy away from controversy.

Employer of foreigners

"We are not against foreigners, we have nothing against those who are here with a contract, a permit," he said on Swiss television on Sunday.

"But we are against those who are here illegally. And nothing is done against crime," he added.

Blocher made his fortune with a plastics and polymers group, EMS Chimie, which does business around the world, and like most of Swiss industry, recruits foreign workers.

Swiss television projections were based on partial counts and exit polls. Final results are expected on Monday after counting is completed in all the country's 26 electoral regions.