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Couchepin put politics before popularity

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Few were surprised when Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin announced his resignation on Friday because it was an open secret he would not stay much longer.

This content was published on June 12, 2009 - 17:56

After all, he has served in the cabinet for more than 11 years – an above average period for a Swiss politician in a top position.

In addition, he turned 67 two months ago and therefore qualifies for retirement even under one of his own controversial proposals. Men currently retire at 65 but Couchepin wanted to increase it by two years, much to the consternation of some in his own Radical Party.

A crowd of journalists tailed Couchepin after he left parliament, where he had announced the end of his political career to members of the House of Representatives.

Even though it is just a hop across the street from the parliament building to the pressrooms, trying to keep up with the tall man is not so simple, as journalists who participated in one of his traditional autumn walks with the media can attest to.

Couchepin's appearance in front of dozens of waiting cameras and microphones was in many ways also characteristic of him.

While many of his predecessors in recent years first told cabinet members and the media of their intensions to resign, Couchepin had waited for parliament to meet in one of its regular sessions.

He began by explaining to the media why: As a sign of respect for Swiss political institutions, he said.

Elections

Couchepin appeared to draw some satisfaction from chronicling all his achievements as a lifelong politician who started locally in southwestern French-speaking Switzerland.

"I stood in 27 elections and I won them all," he said with a quick smile, only to add that there was one minor glitch in the 1970s.

"Instead of being elected mayor of the town of Martigny I became deputy mayor."

Asked about his personal successes and defeats as economics minister and later with the portfolio of interior minister, Couchepin brushed aside the thought of failures.

His critics were quick to point out the unfinished work when it comes to reforming the health sector with its increasing costs, the social security system or the culture policy of federal authorities.

No doubt though, Couchepin chose one of the more difficult posts when he decided to take over the interior ministry.

Popularity

Couchepin has been a rare and full-blooded politician but never very popular. He regularly came in last in public opinion polls.

But this is hardly why he has never liked the cheap media hype and superficial emotion in politics.

"God forbid I should become popular," he reportedly said.

Couchepin said he believes in dialogue and the true search for comprise within Switzerland's system of consensus politics.

A fervent supporter of social solidarity and minority rights, he was willing to enter the ring to fight for unpopular issues.

He will most likely have to do so until the end of his term in October, when a controversial increase in health premiums will be announced.

Footnote

Among the many queries Couchepin faced again and again on Friday was the question of how he sees his role in Swiss politics and how he would like to be remembered: "As a man who loves this country," he said.

"But ultimately I will only be a footnote in Swiss history."

False modesty? There it was again, the slight irritation of a man with a strong presence occasionally displayed at news conferences.

Some take it as a form of conviction – decisive and up-front – while others suspect Couchepin of being aloof to the point of showing arrogance with a dominant attitude.

Be that as it may, the race is now on for Couchepin's successor.

Switzerland will loose its second, major political figure within 18 months after the controversial justice minister, Christoph Blocher, arguably one of Couchepin's toughest political rivals, was ushered off the national stage.

The main political parties have begun to roll out their guns. Couchepin's centre-right Radical Party made it clear it is not willing to give up its claim for the seat.

But it is likely to face battles throughout the summer before parliament is due to elect a new cabinet member in September.

Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch

In brief

Switzerland's government is made up of seven ministers chosen by parliament.

Cabinet elections take place every four years, but a minister is free to chose the moment of his or her resignation.

The ministers share collective responsibility for the government as there is no prime minister or head of government.

The post of Swiss president is largely ceremonial and it rotates every year according to a system of seniority.

Five political parties are currently represented in the government: The centre-right Radicals, the Christian Democrats and the Conservative Democrats, as well as the centre-left Social Democrats and the rightwing Swiss People's Party.

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Couchepin's Political Career

1968-1998: Member of the Martigny local council
1984-1998: Mayor of Martigny
1979-1998: Parliamentarian as member of the House of Representatives for the Radical Party
1998-2002: Economics Minister
2002-2009: Interior Minister
2003 and 2008: Swiss President

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