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Couchepin throws in the towel

Keystone

Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin, a member of the centre-right Radical Party, has announced his resignation as of October 31.

This content was published on June 12, 2009 - 08:18

Couchepin's decision did not come as a real surprise for many, as there had been speculation for months. He had been under fire for his controversial ideas on reforming the Swiss health system, which has seen spiralling costs.

Aged 67, Couchepin was elected to the cabinet in 1998 after many years as a member of the House of Representatives. He was also leader of his party's parliamentary group.

A former mayor of the town of Martigny in canton Valais, Couchepin was economics minister before taking over at the interior ministry in 2003.

The speaker of the House of Representatives, Chiara Simoneschi-Cortesi, read out his letter of resignation in parliament on Friday morning.

Couchepin was applauded when he entered the House for a debate on an increase of value added tax to improve the situation of the disability insurance scheme and thanked parliamentarians for their "friendly welcome".

He told them that there could be friendliness among them despite their differences of opinion.

"Politicians must not be ashamed to show from time to time that there is a certain friendship that has grown among them. We all know that politics is risking something for the good of the country," he said.

Statesman

In a statement, the Radical Party praised Couchepin as an "extraordinary statesman" and patriot, who had served his country for 41 years.

It added that he had always had the courage to call for reforms, even when they were unpopular, and was never afraid to point out the weaknesses and problems of Switzerland.

The centre-right Christian Democratic Party gave Couchepin average marks, saying he had not been very successful with his policy on culture and social insurance. But the party admitted Couchepin had had a difficult task with his portfolio which included the old age pension system.

A statement from the centre-left Social Democrat Party also described Couchepin as a statesman but said he left a series of issues in health matters unanswered, noting in particular the sharp increase in health insurance contributions for 2010.

It added that Couchepin had been particularly active in the promotion of education and research, which had been beneficial to Switzerland.

He had also served the country with diginity as Swiss president in 2003 and 2008.

One voice which did not agree with the majority was that of former Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, a member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party, who said that Couchepin had not been a great statesman.

"No, I don't believe that. After two or three years people will not talk about him," he told Swiss radio.

Blocher criticised Couchepin for being a minister who was too attached to tactics rather than working for the good of the country.

However, the president of the Green Party, Ueli Leuenberger, said that Couchepin had been possibly the only person who clearly stood up to Blocher.

swissinfo.ch's English Department parliamentary correspondent, Urs Geiser, summed up Couchepin this way: "His physical presence - a tall man who walks in big strides - is one of the most striking characteristics of Pascal Couchepin.

"News conferences with him had a certain entertainment value. But he could come across as slightly irritating with his mixture of supreme conviction and aloofness."

swissinfo.ch with agencies

Government service

With 11 years in office in the cabinet, Couchepin served longer than the average government minister.

Among the current cabinet members, only Transport and Communications Minister Moritz Leuenberger has served longer (14 years at the end of September).

Cabinet ministers on average remain in office for ten years. The last to resign, Samuel Schmid, served for eight years.

Since 1959 the longest-serving cabinet minister was Kurt Furgler, who served for 15 years. Furgler, who died last year, was the justice and police minister after a spell as economics minister.

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