Landslides, floods and storms have taken their toll on Switzerland's political climate, turning the Greens into the fastest growing force in the Alpine nation ahead of Sunday's general election.

"We were taken for a bunch of eccentrics just a few years back," Swiss Green Party Vice President Ueli Leuenberger told AFP. In recent months, the Green Party has leapt from just over seven percent to reach the 10 percent barrier in an opinion poll for Swiss television. A nascent Green Liberal movement was also credited with 2.5 percent of voting intentions.

The unprecedented poll score -- before the Nobel peace prize was announced -- placed the Greens just behind the weaker of the four traditional governing parties -- the centre-right Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Radicals at just over 15 percent each.

"Environmental issues are one of the two most important issues for the Swiss electorate," said political scientist Pascal Sciarini. The other is immigration, the far-right Swiss People's Party's territory.

Mountainous Switzerland's exposure to changing climate patterns has produced snow shortages in economically-important Alpine resorts, deadly landslides and costly floods in towns and cities in recent years. But analysts also point to the success in recent years of elected Green officials in the country's powerful regional governments and city executives, especially Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich, all of them cross-party coalitions. They carved out a reputation as pragmatic managers and often helped turn around budget deficits, turning a single-issue party founded less than three decades ago into a credible governing force.

"That also adds to the Greens' image of freshness," said political analyst Hans Hirter of the University of Bern. The Greens claim their views on a more sustainable society are not at odds with economic interests. Leuenberger said their approach merely emphasised "the quality of growth."

"There are a lot of prejudices about the Greens," he added. Although they are drawing some support from the weakening Socialists, the Greens' more recent holistic outlook has also attracted broader backing from Switzerland's largely moderate electorate, analysts said. "For the first time the Green electorate is further to the centre than the Socialists," Sciarini commented.

The Green Liberal splinter movement is expanding in Zurich and other cities, appealing to the centre right with the same ecological agenda but a different approach on social issues.

"The Swiss Greens form a broad church, with different tendencies under the same roof. The Green Liberals, who are anchored to the centre right, can be a complementary force," Leuenberger said.

Environmental influence is not new in mountainous Switzerland. During the 1980s Switzerland briefly forged a reputation as the California of Europe, when the four-party government introduced pioneering pollution controls as Alpine forests were affected by acid rain. In 1979, the Swiss elected a Green to national parliament -- a first in Europe. By 1994, a majority of Swiss voters unexpectedly approved an ecologist referendum motion banning truck traffic from the Alps and stopping new road building in the mountains. That forced the government into a multi-billion Swiss franc, 20-year railway construction project, including a world record 57 kilometre (35 mile) rail tunnel under the Alps.

Analysts believe the Greens still have ground to cover before they can lay claim to a post in the federal government. Leuenberger said: "The Greens are ripe to enter the Federal Council. We'll see if the other political parties are mature enough to work with us."


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