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First among equals Ueli Maurer – an old, new Swiss president

Ueli Maurer sits behind a bouquet of flowers in the parliamentary chamber

The scent of success: Ueli Maurer after he was elected president.

(Keystone / Peter Schneider)

Who is Ueli Maurer, the man who will become the main face of the Swiss government in 2019?

The 68-year-old trained accountant - and Swiss finance minister since 2016 - takes over the one-year presidency that is rotated among the seven members of the Federal Council, Switzerland's executive body.

The role of president is largely symbolic. However, the position means he will be for a year “primus inter pares” – the first among equals – and must chair the Federal Council meetings. He will hold the deciding vote to break any deadlocks.

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The political career of Maurer, a member of the anti-EU, anti-immigration Swiss People's Party, began 40 years ago when he was elected to the town council of Hinwil in canton Zurich. 

Five years later, in 1983, he made the move to the cantonal parliament and finally took to the national stage in 1991 when he was elected to the House of Representatives. 

Blocher's stooge

He became a long-serving president of the People's Party from 1996-2008, a time which saw the party become the strongest in the country. However most of the credit for the rise went to party strongman, Christoph Blocher. Maurer was often parodied on public television as Blocher's stooge.

Maurer had to give up the party leadership when he was elected to the Federal Council in 2009, where he was handed the defence portfolio. Arguably his biggest defeat running the ministry came in 2014 when his request for new fighter jets was rejected by voters.

Political pundits have given him more credit as finance minister for his control of the public purse, although he was criticised for exaggerating the state of the federal finances when the government reported unexpectedly high budget surpluses.

He's also shown himself capable of understanding the winds of change in the financial sector, and the need for liberal fintech regulation for blockchain and cryptocurrencies

His Christmas card this year shows how digitilisation has become a top priority: a one centime coin is illustrated against a red background and a QR code that must be scanned to see the minister's message. 

It's unclear how much, if any, influence the People's Party has on his actions as a government minister. Ministers must largely distance themselves from the positions of their parties when they join the government, and the council speaks with one voice when presenting decisions and recommendations. However, the balance is clearly tipped to the right, with Maurer joined by another colleague from the Swiss People's Party, along with three members from centre-right parties, and two from the leftwing Social Democrats.

It's not known how long Maurer will decide to stay in government, since it's very rare for a Federal Councillor to be voted out of office.

In his acceptance speech before parliament in early December, he said "politics must be fun and you must enjoy it." And it's said the former commander of an army bicycle battalion still takes pleasure riding his bike to work every day he can.

On December 5, 2018, the Swiss Parliament elected Ueli Maurer to the one-year post of president. Although it is Maurer's turn as part of the rotating presidency shared by the seven members of the cabinet, he still had to be formally elected by the two parliamentary chambers. He received 201 out of 209 votes, the best result since 1989 when Jean-Pascal Delamuraz became president.

In his New Year’s speech as president, Maurer pointed to the need to bridge the gap between the old and the new, using two symbols found in his office. A small wooden cow represented Swiss tradition, roots and values. The smartphone showed the rapid change in society. This technology had both an up- and a downside, he said, because it resulted in isolation from the real world and people. This is why it was important to link the past and the future, Maurer said.

end of infobox
The seven Swiss cabinet ministers and the chancellor posing for the official 2019 photo

The Swiss government (from left to right) Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr, Viola Amherd (defence minister), Simonetta Sommaruga (transport/energy/environment minister ), Guy Parmelin (economics, education minister), Ueli Maurer (finance minister/2019 Swiss President), Ignazio Cassis (foreign minister), Alain Berset (interior minister) and Karin Keller-Sutter (justice/police minister).

(BIT)


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