Cabinet tries to contain Libya hostage crisis

At the centre of a controversy over the handling of the Libya hostage crisis - Finance Minister Merz and Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey Keystone

Ten days after the second of two Swiss businessmen held in Libya returned home, a political spat continues on the domestic front.

This content was published on June 24, 2010 minutes

Numerous allegations, rumours and statements have been made over the government’s handling of the crisis with Libya, but it remains difficult to identify possible mistakes by government ministers.

It all began shortly after Max Göldi landed in Switzerland accompanied by Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, following four months’ imprisonment in Tripoli.

According to sources in the federal administration, the government or individual cabinet members had planned or considered a secret mission by special army forces to repatriate the Swiss hostages in Tripoli. What’s more, these sources said not all the cabinet members had been briefed about the extent of the plans in time.

At its regular meeting on Wednesday the government decided to file a legal complaint against an unknown individual for leaking information about the alleged rescue operation which was never carried out.

However the cabinet spokesman refused to answer further questions by the media saying it was confidential information.

Accusations, revelations

Revelations in the media, accusations by political parties, reported statements by cabinet ministers and a controversial declaration by President Doris Leuthard have added fuel to a smouldering fire.

A parliamentary control committee has invited cabinet ministers to a hearing and political parties, in particular the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, have been attacking the foreign minister, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats.

There have been calls for Libya to be brought to account at the United Nations or the European Court of Human Rights.

What has come to light so far is the government’s obvious difficulty in speaking with one voice and possibly a weakness of the system of collegiality in the cabinet as well as personal animosities among the seven-member government.

“The crucial point is how a government can function if relevant issues are not put to a discussion,” says Georg Lutz of the Swiss Foundation for Research in Social Sciences at Lausanne University.

Trust and joint responsibility

He says the accusations against individual ministers ultimately prove that the system, based on joint responsibility and mutual trust, is seriously flawed.

He agrees that some of the verbal skirmishes between the parties might be partly due to a jockeying for position ahead of a possible vacancy in the cabinet.

Lutz refuses to be drawn on whether the bickering is a precursor to the so called silly season - a term used to refer to stories launched by the media during the quiet summer break. “The party political attacks strike me as being rather dismal and tiring,” he adds.


In a similar vein, Andreas Ladner, a political scientist at the Graduate School of Public Administration in Lausanne, says the controversies could rumble on for several weeks and herald the beginning of the campaign ahead of the general elections in 16 months.

“What’s more important,” Ladner says, “it signals possible problems within the government and limitations of the political system.”

He acknowledges that the media play a certain role in the aftermath of the Libya crisis. He says the focus on individuals and their shortcomings makes for good headlines.

Still Ladner refuses to blame journalists for the apparent dissonance on the political scene.

He says the cabinet itself has left too many questions unanswered, inadvertently inviting the media to dig deeper in the search for a good story.

Faced with similar suggestions on Thursday the cabinet spokesman brushed aside the comments.

Urs Geiser,

Collegial leadership

The Swiss cabinet decides as a collective body based on the principle of collegiality.

Each of the seven members, including the president, has a vote and shares responsibility for a cabinet decision.

The ministers are appointed by parliament for a four-year term. The next elections are due in December 2011, following parliamentary elections.

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Libya crisis

The row began after a son of the Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was temporarily detained in Geneva in July 2008 suspected of mistreating his household staff.

Soon afterwards two Swiss businessmen were arrested in Tripoli as part of several retaliatory political and economic measures.

Despite a visit in 2009 by then Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz to Tripoli the two Swiss hostages were not allowed to leave Libya.

In February 2010 one hostage obtained an exit visa, while the other one had to serve a prison sentence for visa violations.

The second Swiss hostage returned home in June 2010 accompanied by Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey and following mediation efforts by the EU.

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